Today in America every political issue has two sides. That’s a bit of a reduction, but hear me out. We seem to have reached a stage in our national discourse in which every political or social conflict is not only portrayed as having two opposing viewpoints but that the irreconcilability between these two is presumed from before the discussion even starts. Compromise has become a concept without meaning. Therefore, creating a narrative about rural and urban, right and left meeting head to head takes daring enough. To have protagonists who are not simply arguing from one side but seeking to extract some sort of genuine meaning or guidance out of the muddle is just risky.
Writer/director Ben Hickernell of this weekend’s “Lebanon, Pa.” has attempted just that. Two lead characters move back and forth between Philadelphia and the small conservative town of Lebanon, trying to wrestle where they want to be and exactly how they’re going to get there. Will (Josh Hopkins) and his young cousin, CJ (Rachel Kitson), find themselves on opposite ends of that drive for escape, as he wants to set up a simple life for himself in Lebanon while she’s desperate to get out and go to college in Philadelphia. Yet they each start off with values entirely alien to the environment of their dreams and end up surrounded by a vehemently disapproving small town community. The film’s preoccupation is in seeing whether or not some kind of balance is even possible, or if Pennsylvania’s red/blue culture divide is too much for both of them.
The film opens with the death of Will’s father, who had been living in Lebanon for years. Will goes to the funeral, pulling into town in his little VW with “Save the Whales” and “I Vote Pro-Choice” bumper stickers on the back. Sick of the city and the stresses of his work in advertising, he quickly becomes desperate to stay. He just wants to fit into the community, hang at the local bar with the charismatic (and married) Vicki, and become part of Lebanon in spite of his political differences. Occasionally it even seems like a good idea.
As for CJ, her problem is that she’s pregnant. Her dream is to attend Drexel University in Philadelphia, and at the beginning of the movie Will even takes her to visit. Yet her father and her boyfriend’s family refuse to even consider the possibility of her not having the child and have already planned out her life of raising the baby and working in Lebanon. As she explores her options in town it becomes increasingly clear that even her classmates have decided that a single outcome is the only acceptable answer to her crisis. At one point she’s directed by a friend to a local “pregnancy counseling center” where there are no doctors, but she’s given a sonogram, a prayer on her behalf and then no allowance for discussing the abortion option.
At this point the film could easily fall flat on its face and pick an ideological side to each of these problems. Yet Hickernell seems much more interested in offering a glimpse into the stubbornness that creates the cultural divide in the first place. Will’s naiveté becomes more exaggerated as “Lebanon, Pa.” rolls onward, defining a character absolutely unwilling to accept that his core values make him ineligible for escape to this small town. Moreover, it becomes increasingly clear that the very idea of fleeing to Lebanon was flawed to begin with and more than a little bit condescending. Why should he be able to saunter into town and create an idyllic existence with someone else’s wife? Political disagreement isn’t the issue but rather a gap in values hinted at by his selling fake imagery for profit (for the advertising firm in Philly) and his quick disregard for the consequences of an extra-marital affair.
It is intransigence on the issue of CJ’s pregnancy that really drives Hickernell’s point home. Pennsylvania is perhaps the most appropriate state to set this particular conflict. It’s a slightly schizophrenic commonwealth neatly divided between right and left wing areas, which just a few years ago had a Pro-Choice Republican and a Pro-Life Democrat representing its interests in the US Senate. The dichotomy between CJ’s very religious Catholic father and the perceived freedom awaiting her in Philadelphia becomes the strongest thematic tension of the film from the moment we find out that she’s pregnant. Instead of developing any sort of ideological opinion at an early stage, CJ tries asking just about everyone she knows for advice. Yet even then, as things close out, it remains incredibly apparent that there’s no way through the cultural divide. If she stays home and has the kid, she’ll be forced to miss out on the education she’s dreamed of. But if she has the abortion and goes to college she may sever ties with an entire community.
The implications of “Lebanon, Pa.” are not pleasant. However, on some level it doesn’t seem quite right to assume that Hickernell intends for the conclusion to be so bleak. Rather, one gets the impression that even though Will and CJ ultimately fail in their attempts to balance the busy city and the conservative small town, the very act of trying can help in some small way. And it’s more than a little refreshing to see the issue of teen pregnancy tackled in a fiction film without the need for campy humor or eccentric dialogue.