When Lebanon, Pa. opened with a familiar lonely yuppie montage — man is dumped by girlfriend, man sits in sparsely decorated modern apartment, man eats wilting breakfast burrito while driving to work, man engages in soulless marketing job as indicated by presentation with pie charts — I was worried. And when this man, Will (Josh Hopkins), is handed a note in said meeting stating that his father is dead, sending him off to the small Pennsylvania town of Lebanon to do post-mortem cleanup, I thought I was in for another version of Garden State. I feared that Will’s missive to head back to Lebanon would land us squarely in the worn-out indie territory of a hardened, urban protagonist discovering the simple things that hold the key to what really matters or what really makes people happy.
But about a quarter way through, a shift takes place. Despite early scenes in which Will takes enormous and unfamiliar pleasure in mowing a lawn or downing Yuenglings in a dive where people still smoke, the film morphs into an unbiased and heartfelt exploration of some of the real human differences between city and country, liberals and conservatives, in America.
When Will returns to his father’s house, he is almost immediately greeted by his second cousins who live across the street — a single father Andy (Ian Merill Peakes) and his teenage son and daughter. It is the older daughter, CJ (Rachel Kitson), a bright high school senior eagerly anticipating going to college in Philadelphia when she discovers she is pregnant, who carries the momentum of the film. CJ and Will form a slow-growing bond as CJ reaches out to Will instinctively as a guide to the more cosmopolitan life she craves. More urgently, however, Will is a life raft, as she rides with him back to Philly under the guise of a college trip in order to visit Planned Parenthood.
The abortion issue could easily blow a giant hole in the middle of the film, shredding it in the wake of its political and narrative associations. Instead, writer and director Ben Hickernell manages to make the topic feel new by focusing on CJ herself: we follow the strands of her anxiety through a professional but cool consultation at Planned Parenthood, a visit to a Christian clinic that has no doctors but only a disarmingly hospitable older woman (whose watery eyes are creepily magnified behind her glasses as she pretends to see a heartbeat on a sonogram), and finally a horrifying “we’re here to support you and your baby” intervention MC’d by the local priest in which CJ’s boyfriend, his parents, and her father are in attendance. In the midst of this thicket of pressures, we remain focused on CJ and sympathize with her isolation and anguish as she furtively clicks on “pictures of real aborted fetuses” on the family PC late at night.
This going back to the human basics of an exhausted issue is Hickernell’s strength as a filmmaker. He exposes us to what we often overlook when we debate issues like abortion — namely, that the viewpoints that divide our country are endlessly sourced by deep wells of feeling and the accumulated power of daily experience. When Will has a conversation with the local bartender about whether he could successfully live in Lebanon, the bartender doubtfully points to the “Go Green” and pro-choice stickers affixed to his ex’s car that he’s driving. “So what?” Will says. “It’s just a difference in political opinion.” “No,” the bartender tells him, “it’s a difference in values. And that’s why you don’t fit in.” City and country are literally speaking different languages.
And if the writing in Lebanon, Pa. is at times uneven, or a symbol produced that is a mite too hokey or convenient, we can forgive Hickernell because he has created such a broadly perceptive film in which the characters and the bonds between them feel both powerful and flawed. In the end, there is no winner in the city vs. country debate, only the cage of one’s choosing. Hickernell’s film does what it should, translating a confusing piece of our cultural cacophony into an honest picture of experience.