Lebanon, Pa. starts off seeming like the latest addition to the Elizabethtown/Garden State subgenre that follows depressed dudes who meet the girls of their dreams and come to terms with their lives after a parent’s funeral. But that’s a narrative feint. Not long after urbanite ad exec Josh Hopkins heads to the eponymous small town to bury his estranged father, he meets Rachel Kitson, who lives across the street from his dad’s house with her widower father and younger brother. She’s 17, and has just found out she’s pregnant.
In an age where shmashmortion still dares not speak its name, a film devoted to a serious consideration of whether to terminate a pregnancy deserves credit, even if that film is pretty tiresome and displays the delicate touch of a sledgehammer on an old sidewalk. Kitson’s situation isn’t softened by easy outs. She has college plans and a passion for studying biographies; she also has a Catholic father and a boyfriend willing, after some prompting, to settle down with her and raise the baby. She latches onto Hopkins as an outsider who can offer a different perspective, but with his own life in shambles, he isn’t in the best position to give advice.
Lebanon may only be a two-hour drive from Philadelphia, but the cultural gap is considerably vaster. Lebanon, Pa. is at its weakest when consciously delineating that purple-state divide, which it does with a heavy hand and an over-reliance on easy stereotypes. The Lebanon radio only features religious programming, Christian music, and right-wing talk shows, but the town is also warm and family-oriented. Philly, on the other hand, is all gleaming condos and a life so cutthroat that Hopkins’ boss begrudges him just a few days off for his father’s funeral. Given the thoroughness with which Kitson’s dilemma is illustrated, it’s much harder to invest in Hopkins’ near-midlife crisis, which finds him romancing a local gal (Samantha Mathis) with an inconvenient husband and struggling to come to terms with his mother. It isn’t a terrible shock when life in Lebanon isn’t the solution to his problems, but the turns the film takes toward the end do offer a few surprises, particularly in the form of redemption for the waffling hero—not in running after the ones he loves, but in standing by them when they need him.