Gary Thompson: 'Lebanon, Pa.' is based in Pennsylvania, but its ambition reaches far

Posted: April 29, 2011

When "Lebanon, Pa." opens today at the Ritz Bourse, leading man Josh Hopkins ("Cougartown") will be there to answer questions after the evening shows.

An unusual show of support from a star, but typical of the way cast and crew have rallied around "Lebanon," a Little Movie That Could conceived and executed mostly by local talent.

Writer-director Ben Hickernell spent five years putting the movie together while holding down his day job at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. He wrote it, directed it, cast it (with the help of Mike Lemon) and helped raise the cash.

"I sure hope everybody makes their money back, but it's definitely not a project you do for the money. For me, it's something I did because I had a passion for it," said Hickernell, who, growing up, split time between Baltimore and Lebanon.

As a guy with a foot in the disparate worlds of city/country, he became interested in the so-called Red State/Blue State divide and felt the color-coded terms had become trite shorthand for a more complex cultural situation. He was inspired to write a story that blurred convenient distinctions.

Hopkins plays a Philadelphia man on extended leave to dispose of his father's estate in Lebanon, where he ends up entangled in the lives of the folks that he meets and befriends.

Hopkins is one of a few nationally known pros (Mary Beth Hurt, Samantha Mathis) in "Lebanon" - most of the roles went to local talent.

Temple student Rachel Kitson has a substantial role as a teen, full of secrets, who uses Hopkins' character as a confidante. Hickernell held auditions in New York and saw a lot of professional actresses, but none felt right for Kitson's key role.

Rachel, he said, was the best of the bunch - Hickernell spotted her in an outside room before the audition and had an intuition she was "the one." Her reading confirmed it.

Kitson's hyperprotective father is played by Ian Merrill Peakes, a featured player on local and regional stage.

"Lebanon, Pa." has won praise for its cinematography (shot on the super high-def RED camera), the work of local lenser Jeff Schirmer, who's done TV commercials and makes his feature debut with "Lebanon."

Even the music is local - the first film score by Matt Pond and Chris Hansen of the N.Y./Philadelphia band Matt Pond PA.

"I've been fans of these guys since I saw them at the Khyber Pass years ago," said Hickernell, who contacted them by shooting an email to their website.

"Lebanon" played the festival circuit, made a splash at South By Southwest, won the Filmadelphia Award at the Philadelphia Film Fest last fall and now has a distribution deal that will put it in a dozen cities on the art-house circuit.

Hickernell's hope is that "Lebanon" will succeed and enable a series of locally set movies - he has three scripts in the works.

"I want to live here and tell stories here. If this one does well, it will launch the next one."

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