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Lebanon, Pa. -- Film Review

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AUSTIN -- "Lebanon, Pa." is a few strong moments of storytelling lost in a sea of indie cliche. Writer-director Ben Hickernell's second feature is an earnest one that bravely attempts to deal with heated political issues, but every plot point feels culled from the low-budget films that have screened at countless film festivals -- a prodigal son dealing with his father's death, an affair with a married woman, the young girl longing for college and city life, etc. It's as if the film was pressed whole from a template for Indie Film Fest Entries. It will perform modestly at best.
 

Will (Josh Hopkins), an ad exec in Philadelphia, travels to the small town of Lebanon to bury his father, who'd lived there since leaving Will and his mother when Will was just a boy. While there, he meets Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), his dad's second cousin, and Andy's teen children, C.J. (Rachel Kitson) and Chase (Hunter Gallagher).

Will is bemused but resigned to their devout Catholicism, but their religious leaning gets complicated when C.J. privately confesses to Will one night that she's pregnant. She is now considering options that conflict with what she's been taught to believe.

Hickernell's onto something here, and almost makes a movie that could be the dark side of "Juno," but blows it with loose direction and hackneyed storytelling.

The other half of the plot deals with Will's pursuit of a local teacher, Vicki (Samantha Mathis), after he meets her at a bar. She exists just so Will can go on a journey of self-actualization and learn to connect with a human being again. Yet Hickernell does nothing to provoke a change in Will that would make him want to be a better, more loving man.

The film opens with Will getting dumped by his girlfriend for being cold and uninvolved. So what makes him turn around? His pursuit of Vicki starts out like just another barroom pick-up and becomes somehow more, but Hickernell never shows why. Perhaps he took it as a given that in a movie like this, there has to be a relationship, so this one just starts happening for no real reason.

The performances themselves are often worthwhile, particularly from Kitson and Peakes. She feels believably naive but never stupid, and that's tough to pull off. Peakes has a couple of strong moments connecting with her as a worried father, too.

Those moments are few and far between, and they can't make up for the fact that for the most part, "Lebanon, Pa." is a showcase for actors waiting for better projects.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival

Production: Lebanon Prods.
Cast: Josh Hopkins, Samantha Mathis, Mary Beth Hurt, Rachel Kitson, Ian Merrill Peakes, Christopher Mann
Director/screenwriter/editor: Ben Hickernell
Producers: Jason Contino, Ben Hickernell, Charles Smith III
Executive producer: Sally Fridy
Director of photography: Marc Jeff Schirmer
Production designer: David Barnes
Music: Matt Pond, Chris Hansen
Costume designer: Angeline Zeigler
Not rated, 100 minutes