Taking a detour toward morality
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, May 13, 2011
Will is a jerk. Establishing the Philadelphia ad man’s selfishness is the first order of business for “Lebanon, Pa.,” a low-budget, small-town drama. First, we hear the voice of Will’s off-screen girlfriend, ending their relationship because she considers him incapable of love. Then we see him deliver a glib presentation on how to market products to the world’s biggest patsies: children.
When Will (Josh Hopkins) gets word of his father’s death, writer-director Ben Hickernell’s agenda seems clear. The Philly sophisticate will travel to rural Pennsylvania for his dad’s funeral, meet some regular folks and become nicer.
That’s sort of what happens, but the movie takes an interesting detour on the two-lane road to Will’s moral refurbishment. It introduces almost-18-year-old CJ (Rachel Kitson), the Philadelphian’s distant cousin, and she takes over the story.
CJ is smart, and enthusiastic about her future, except for one thing: She’s pregnant. Lebanon is anti-abortion country, and one of the things that marks Will as an outsider is the “I Vote Pro-Choice” bumper sticker on his VW bug. (Another thing: that he drives a VW bug.) When word gets around that CJ is expecting, no one suggests she end the pregnancy. But Will gives CJ a ride to Drexel University, which she expects to attend, and she takes the opportunity to visit a Philly branch of “Planned Parenting” for counseling.
Will’s colleagues and his long-divorced mother (a fine cameo by Mary Beth Hurt) pressure him to return to work. But Will can’t quite bring himself to sell his father’s house and leave Lebanon. So he listlessly remains and is drawn into the battle between CJ and her father (Ian Merrill Peakes), a single parent and devout Catholic. As if that weren’t trouble enough, Will makes himself even more unpopular locally by beginning an affair with one of CJ’s teachers, Vicki (Samantha Mathis), who happens to be married.
Since the crux of the tale is a teenager’s decision about an unwanted pregnancy, “Lebanon, Pa.” can’t possibly please everyone. But Hickernell doesn’t strain to be provocative. If his matter-of-fact film isn’t as sugar-glazed as “Juno,” neither is it a harrowing psychological drama.
One thing the movie does share with “Juno” is a lively, confident performance by its central player. Kitson makes CJ believable as a young woman who soon learns how to handle parental pressure, internal doubt and high-school gossip.
Handsome but sort of blank, Hopkins is less convincing as the cold city guy who’s warmed by a trip to one of America’s heartlands. It turns out to be just as well as that “Lebanon, Pa.” isn’t really about him.
Contains sexual situations, profanity, drinking and smoking.