It’s always fun when an unknown actor becomes a breakout star from a small independent film. I’m betting that’s what happens with Rachel Kitson, one of the stars of ‘Lebanon, Pa.’ This is her first film; prior to this, she’d done only high school and college theater.
I met Rachel at the Traverse City Film Festival this summer, and she’s just as sweet as can be. And when I interviewed the director, Ben Hickernell, he had nothing but praise for her, noting that she’d blown people away at South by Southwest earlier this year.
“She and Josh [Hopkins] are the center of the movie, and she totally holds her own with all these seasoned pros,” said Hickernell. “She’s really talented, and it also helps that she really kind of IS this girl and is just so right for the part. We were very lucky to find her.”
And I felt lucky to not only meet both of these talented people, but also see their film. ‘Lebanon, Pa.’ is a movie that sort of sneaks up on you and then sticks with you. As T.C. Film Festival founder Michael Moore noted, it’s a very layered film that any mainstream audience would love. “And yet, there are some plot-twists in the film that you haven’t seen in an American feature film, because [Hickernell] broke some taboos that you’re not supposed to break. It’s not an experimental film, it’s not a politically charged film or whatever; it’s a nice story, but within the story, he does a couple of subversive things that you just sit there and you go wow … wow, I haven’t seen that in a film, that’s something. So good on him.”
The story follows teenager CJ (played so well by Kitson that you forget she’s acting), who discovers she’s pregnant about the time that 35-year-old Will (Josh Hopkins, whose many credits include Grayson on ‘Cougar Town’) rolls into the small town of Lebanon, Pa. to bury his recently deceased dad. Rachel lives across the street from Will’s dad’s house. Turns out she’s his cousin. Or second cousin. Or something.
The death of his dad begins Will on a journey of introspection, especially since he’s been at the same ad agency in Philadelphia for years and seems to be going nowhere. Then again, he’s not sure he really fits into the small-town life of Lebanon either. He ends up getting involved with CJ’s married teacher Vicki (Samantha Mathis), which throws a giant wrench into things. Hopkins is really handsome, but still seems like a guy who could move in next door to you.
‘Lebanon, Pa.’ is a comic drama, in that the story deals with some pretty heavy issues – What will CJ do about the baby? How will her conservative dad Andy (Ian Peakes) handle her decision? Is Will going to stay in Lebanon? Will Vicki stay with her husband? – but it’s also very funny. I come from that same small town here in Michigan (well, it was small when I was a kid), and I identified with so much of the story. People hold hands to pray before dinner (we still do that at family gatherings). The residents are fairly conservative politically and religiously (at least when I was a kid). And when something happens, the whole town knows about it. You can really muck things up fast.
Hickernell doesn’t shy away from asking the hard questions – and answering them in a way that you might not agree with. But that’s ok. People are pretty much the same all over the world, and we’re just doing the best we can within our own circumstances. In that way, the movie has a universal appeal. Life is hard, but you can find small connections and joys that help you get through the tough times.
If you have a chance to see ‘Lebanon, Pa., I highly recommend it. And if it’s not in your town, go to the movie’s Web site and click through the “Demand It” box in the sidebar. The more play this film gets, the better. Not surprisingly, it also won a Best Fiction Film Award at the Traverse City Film Festival.
Images: Jane Boursaw; Reconstruction Pictures