This is a plea for self-described indie filmmakers to stop utilizing hyper-polished technique to talk about human misery. Give me rugged skin, out-of-focus realness, maladroit camera moves, soundtrack cracks and pops. Give me blurs, dust, stuttering, ahs and uhs, and a sense of spontaneity. Lebanon, PA, for instance, tries to examine the existential mediocrity of Americans, real (pregnant teens from blue-collar families) and unreal (bored advertising execs with money to spare), with the stylistic insipidness and reverence for well-established narrative rules that makes it anything but cinematic.
Upon the death of his father, Will (Josh Hopkins) returns home from supposedly cosmopolitan Philly to his native Lebanon, PA, where religious loonies hang out in front of Planned Parenthood harassing women and regular folk’s after-work leisure options are playing darts…or playing darts. Will is quickly entertained by the circus act in a Bethenny Frankel-visiting-the-Hoppys kind of way (these people actually have breakfast…sitting down), as he quickly falls for a married woman and becomes his pregnant teenage cousin’s confidante.
White privileged bodies don’t necessarily lend themselves very easily to expressions of grief. Since the aesthetics of Lebanon, PA are as spotless as its characters would like one another to be, it’s hard to read emotional authenticity anywhere in the film. The sorrow is carefully worded and well-composed, and the new discoveries are just as gently managed by our city hero and his cheating partner. After finding out new details about a father he hardly knew, Will learns to find pleasure in the simple things, like mowing the lawn and, yes, playing darts. All of which makes him reconsider ever going back to the big city.
The film takes turns focusing on Will’s rediscovery of the simple life through paternal death and his cousin C.J.‘s (Rachel Kitson) do-I-keep-the-baby dilemma, which has a pro-choice slant from the beginning. It can at times feel like two different films, Will’s (bland but inoffensive) and C.J.‘s (heavy-handed in its Juno-lite obviousness). If there are any heartfelt scenes in what becomes a slight at pro-lifers with absolutely no nuance, it all gets upstaged by the clichés that follow: father slaps daughter and then regrets it, pregnant daughter-with-question-mark-face looks confused in front of “Planned Parenting” sign, and there is closure for all characters and issues raised.