The first thing you notice about Lebanon, Pa. is how freaking gorgeous it is. There was a time when you came to a festival like SXSW expecting its indie world premiere slate to largely feature movies that look like they were shot through a screen door. Ben Hickernell's second feature, "filmed" on a $15,000 Red One camera in Philadelphia and surrounding communities, looks as good as any moderately budgeted studio feature, and better than most. The fact that filmmaking has become so cheap anyone can do it is repeated so often that it's become a truism, but I'm not sure any movie has illustrated it as starkly as this one. The effect is amplified by the fact that I saw Hickernell's debut, Cellar, five years ago at the now-defunct Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. It did not look like this.
Not that Ben Hickernell is "anyone." Lebanon, Pa. is problematic, but it does a lot of things right, and winds up being one of the more engaging films at this year's festival. An urban-rural culture clash drama, it begins with the death of the protagonist's father, who moved from Philly to the titular rural community after leaving his wife and son when the latter was a young boy. The son, who is named Will and is now a hunky big-city ad man played by TV vet Josh Hopkins, has to travel to Lebanon to sell dad's house and otherwise get his affairs in order.
In Lebanon, Will meets his dad's second cousin Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), and Andy's two kids, seventeen year-old CJ (Rachel Kitson) and fifteen year-old Chase (Hunter Gallagher). They are your typical sturdy, Republican, Christian family from the Real America; in a early scene, they perturb Will by joining hands to say grace before a meal. But CJ, clearly the smartest kid in the room, has a secret, which she confides in Will: she's pregnant. And she's contemplating an abortion -- which in Lebanon means social suicide, and the very real possibility of being disowned by your family.
There's also a romance: Will meets a local teacher (Samantha Mathis), who's married, but too hot for it to matter. And there's an underdeveloped subplot involving Will's mom (Mary Beth Hurt), who's peculiarly obstinate about Will ditching Lebanon and coming back to Philly where he belongs. Not all of these storylines are equally compelling. And Will, though ostensibly the main character, is the least interesting thing in the film. As a corollary, I spent much of the running time wishing that Hickernell would follow some of his supporting characters around itself, a request which he occasionally obliged.
The movie also sometimes falls into the trap of being smugly reductive in portraying the clash between the enlightened liberal urbanites and the heartland rubes. Hickernell does go out of his way not to make Andy the villain: he's a loving father who was raised a certain way and is just trying to reconcile his values with his love for his daughter, etc. And there's a good scene where what Will thinks is a beating for a pro-choice bumper sticker is actually something else. But Hickernell aims for such obvious targets -- pro-life Christians, whom he perceives as callously unsympathetic -- that despite its best, well-intentioned efforts Lebanon still comes off as a bit condescending to both liberals and conservatives.
What ultimately carried the film for me was Rachel Kitson's CJ, a bright teenager desperately trying to avoid having her future ruined by a repressive family and community. Kitson is outstanding in the role, as is Hunter Gallagher as her softie mischief-maker brother. The story resolves in a way that's low-key, convincing, and hits all the right emotional notes. It's the best part of an intriguing, beautiful film by a promising young director.