LEBANON, PA. Movie Review
If you only see one film this year, let it be LEBANON, PA. Already acclaimed by critics (it reigns as SXSW film festival’s official selection for 2010 and was the recipient of the Fimadelphia Award at the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival), it promises to make you feel more than any other movie you might have a chance to see.
Josh Hopkins plays Will, a 35-year-old Philadelphia businessman who travels to his old home of Lebanon in the wake of his father’s death. By chance, he meets his unknown second cousins – single father Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), 17 year old CJ (Rachel Kitson) and loner Chase (Hunter Gallagher) – a family firmly routed in the town’s values. While spending time in town, Will ends up building two unlikely relationships – a father-daughter relationship with newly pregnant CJ, and a romantic relationship with CJ’s married teacher Vicki (Samantha Mathis) whom he meets one night at a bar.
Hopkins (fresh off his regular role in Cougar Town) brings a terrific amount of depth to the character of Will – he manages to bring out the vulnerability of a man who is re-assessing his life without overplaying his emotions, and his chemistry is present with nearly everyone in the cast. I’d venture to say there isn’t one weak link in the ensemble of Lebanon, Pa., but the clear standout is newcomer Rachel Kitson. A theatre major at Philadelphia’s Temple University, Kitson, in her first film role, is more than believable. She brings just the right amount of innocence and maturity to CJ’s struggles. Watching her performance invokes strong memories of Ellen Page’s game-changing turn in Juno, and with good reason – Kitson handles what is an incredibly demanding role with ease, letting us see into the heart of a scared 17-year-old girl while showing us the determination and strength she possesses.
Merill Peakes is convincing as Andy, CJ’s straight-laced Catholic father who, being so invested in his values, refuses to see the conflict that threatens to tear his family apart. And Mathis’ talent is clear as she gives her performance just the right amount of edge, making us feel for the teacher who torn between her love for Will and her unhappy devotion to her husband.
One of the strengths of Lebanon, Pa. is its simplistic nature, which helps add to the overall tone of the film. Emotionally charged scenes are often void of any background music, keeping the focus on the characters in conflict. Throughout, stories cross back and forth between the bustling city of Philadelphia and the rural town of Lebanon, the juxtaposition creating an authentic feel of the differences in values that the movie strives to portray. Director Bill Hickernell moves seamlessly through scenes, gifting us with dialogue that’s real and relatable and it’s clear that Hickernell put his soul into what he has created. The movie stands a true testament to personal filmmaking, and you can see how much care went into portraying a town and a story that is close to the director’s heart.
Although technically labeled a comic drama, Lebanon, Pa. is first and foremost a film about family and a film about struggling to find where you fit in. It will leave you laughing and crying, but mostly, it will leave you feeling bittersweet as it explores the cultural divide of our country in the most personal way possible – through the eyes of a family and those who are struggling to heal.
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