The local roots of “Lebanon, PA” are right there in the movie’s title.
A Philadelphia ad executive (Josh Hopkins) travels to Lebanon to bury his estranged father. As he drives his VW Bug (festooned with a comical number of liberal bumper stickers reading “Save the Whales” and “Pro-Choice”), his favorite public radio station sputters and fizzles as he exits the Philadelphia orbit. Less than two hours away from his renovated row house in Old City, he enters staunchly conservative territory.
“I wanted to set it in specific places,” said writer/director Ben Hickernell in an Old City coffee shop. “I get tired of films either set in Anywhere, USA, or New York or Los Angeles. There are so many more American stories to tell.”
Hickernell knows something about political friction, but doesn’t believe in cultural divides. He grew up in Baltimore, went to school at Haverford College, lived in a renovated warehouse space in Old City, and visits family in Lebanon.
The story features the hottest of political buttons–abortion–a divisive issue which threatens to overwhelm the otherwise quiet story about pivotal moments in people’s lives. Hickernell wrote the film as a reaction to an America portrayed as divided into red states and blue states.
“The ’04 election was divisive just like the ’08 one was, and the ’12 one will be,” said Hickernell. “I wanted to tell a story on a human level–the level of discourse on cable news didn’t match the way it was with the people I knew, and the family I knew. I frankly have faith in the capability of the American people. We’re supposed to be a society based on open discussion.”
“Lebanon, PA” opens this weekend in New York and Philadelphia. Its real test will come in a few weeks, when the film plays to a hometown audience in Lebanon, Pa.