Lebanon, Pa. starts off like a self-serious Garden State and ends up like a self-serious Juno. How do the twain meet? Awkwardly, and not entirely convincingly, in writer-director Ben Hickernell’s first full-length feature release.
At the beginning of the story, 35-year-old ad executive Will (Josh Hopkins) has just been dumped by his long-term girlfriend when he finds out that his father, a teacher, has died. Because his mother, after years of divorce, still feels caustically about her ex even in death, Will travels from Philadelphia to the podunk title town to take care of his father’s affairs.
Once there, things seem to go smoothly. Will instantly befriends Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), a distant cousin who lives across the street, as well as Andy’s teenage daughter, C.J. (Rachel Kitson). And at the local watering hole he finds himself instantly attracted to Vicki (Samantha Mathis), an unhappily married teacher, whom later encounters while he’s cleaning out his father’s things from the school. Will even begins to feel closer to his estranged dad when he inadvertently learns about the old man’s hobbies while preparing the house for sale.
But does he really want to sell? After all, he’s been spinning his wheels at his job for years and no longer has a girl to come home to. Plus, a quarter gets you only 7.5 minutes of parking in Philly, whereas you can leave your car for five hours in Lebanon—a point that’s apparently important, since Hicknernell offers close-ups of the respective meters.
But then Will finds out that C.J. is pregnant. Well, she actually tells him much earlier than this, but it only becomes important much later. C.J. had been planning on attending college in Philadelphia, and while visiting stops in to a “Planned Parenting” clinic for some information about her options, including abortion. But when her father finds out she’s knocked up, he calls in the cavalry—priest, boyfriend, boyfriend’s dad—to make it clear that she’s having the baby, getting married, and maybe going to community college if she’s lucky.
Now the film becomes an absurdly uneven teachable moment about the big bad city versus the angelic small town. Will gets stared down at the bar not only because he’s been seen with Vicki but because his car sports bumperstickers that say things like “Save the Whales” and—gasp!—“Pro-Choice.” Not only will C.J.’s father not hear of abortion, but neither will her aghast best friend, who starts the gossip that leads to dad’s having found out in the first place. Tsk, tsk, you Hellbound girl!
So whose story is Lebanon, Pa.’s? Both characters’ and no one’s. Will is forgotten about for a large chunk of the plot as C.J. deals with her dilemma. When he resurfaces to declare his possible change of lifestyle, it feels sudden and tacked-on. (And his fake tears during a pseudo-tender moment: Please.) Meanwhile, C.J. always seemed like a weird best bud to Will—or perhaps convenient is a better term, considering she happens to meet someone who can show her a life outside of the claustrophobic one she knows. Her gigantic problem is also resolved in a snap. Life in Lebanon is simple, indeed.
Queen to Play Directed by Caroline Bottaro
Acting the eccentric intellectual has apparently become so easy for Kevin Kline that he’s decided to do it in French. Kline speaks not a word of English in Queen to Play, the debut film from writer-director Caroline Bottaro, adapted from Bertina Henrichs’ novel. Le Francais de Kline is occasionally flat but mostly flawless—and besides, that raised eyebrow of vexation is universal.
But Queen to Play’s story belongs to Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a married maid whose life isn’t miserable but isn’t exactly exciting, either. Having moved to a small French town to get married, Hélène has no social life outside of her prickly husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and her pissy teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil). One day she’s cleaning a hotel room when she’s taken with a good-looking couple, all sexy bed-head and silky underthings, playing chess on a sunny balcony. Soon she’s swiping the lingerie the woman left behind and buying an electronic chess set for Ange’s birthday, which he doesn’t exactly accept with warmth. Nor does he respond to said lingerie when it’s time for lights out.
So Hélène proceeds to teach herself the game. “The queen is the most powerful piece,” she reads with a mixture of surprise and a sense of hope. She’s also noticed a chess board while cleaning the home of the rumpled, crabby Kroger (Kline). Though he barely speaks to Hélène other than to admonish her to leave things where she found them, she becomes emboldened and asks Kroger if he’d be willing to play chess with her in exchange for free housecleaning.
The next week they’re playing tense, weird games, and, unsurprisingly, Kroger slowly warms up to her—and she keeps getting better, to the point where he suggests she enter a tournament. In the meantime, Hélène’s paying no attention to the time she’s spent away from home. Ange gets suspicious and starts following her; her daughter accuses her of being “in love.” Both are embarrassed that the whole town seems to think Hélène and Kroger are having an affair.
Queen to Play ends up as any sports movie would, though the theme of female empowerment is much stronger, even in the lighter-than-air package in which it’s presented. When Kroger insists to Hélène that she’s good enough for a Paris tournament, she doesn’t believe him—so he unveils to her what the inherently sad man has probably never shown anybody, his late wife’s paintings. She never did anything with her artwork, he says, because although she was very good, “her doubt was stronger than her painting.” It’s one of a handful of small, touching moments in this trifle, perhaps the only film in which a board game leads to a woman’s happiness.