Much like a small town, “Big Stone Gap” grows on you.
Sure, the script can be simpler than a diner menu. And at times the nostalgia seems manufactured like the goodies at a Cracker Barrel gift shop, but once the likable cast and old-fashioned storytelling find their groove, “Big Stone Gap” proves to be a big-screen yarn that’s a nice change of pace from the summer popcorn-movie season.
Filmed on location in Wise County, “Big Stone Gap” is the story of a self-proclaimed town spinster and pharmacist named Ave Maria (Ashley Judd). Somewhere between directing the local town play and getting caught in a crossfire of unexpected courtships by school band director Theodore (John Benjamin Hickey) and coal miner Jack (Patrick Wilson), Ave Maria finds out a secret about her family’s past. And her comfortable yet unfulfilled life gets rocked, big time.
Of course, secrets are hard to keep in small towns, especially with half your high school sticking around more than 20 years after graduation. This includes Sweet Sue Tinsley (Jane Krakowski), the buxom divorcee who’s got her eye on Jack. Fortunately, Ave Marie has a pack of quirky friends in her corner, including Fleeta (Whoopi Goldberg), her no-nonsense pharmacy employee, and Iva Lou (Jenna Elfman), the promiscuous, new-agey librarian who drives a bookmobile through the town’s rolling hills.
“Big Stone Gap” flip-flops back and forth from romantic comedy to lightly stirred drama to journey of self-discovery. Imagine “Eat, Pray, Love” if the plane never left the runway. Written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, who also penned the best-selling book, the movie feels more like the extended pilot of a ABC Family series than a Hollywood movie. That’s not to say “Big Stone Gap” doesn’t work as a film; it does. It’s just rare to see characters explored so deeply in a film ripe with more platitudes than real conflict . This is especially true of Wilson’s character, a 40-year-old, polite but quiet coal miner . But Jack is one deep dude, a mama’s boy who’s compartmentalized a midlife crisis and has some surprises up the sleeve of his powder-blue tuxedo.
It’s obvious that the film was cast with great care, and the actors seem to genuinely like working with one another. Heck, Trigiani and Wilson’s family are from Big Stone Gap. This rare camaraderie is harder to fake when your backlot includes real country homes and pickup trucks as opposed to green screens and CGI props, when you might not even see or meet your co-stars. The “Big Stone Gap” cast and crew lived in the town for all 20 days of filming; the apparent close bonds they shared certainly show.
“Big Stone Gap” is funny, but it treats some of its comedic payoffs with the heavy hand of a wooden-spoon spanking. It’s the characters’ idiosyncrasies, and not the half-sassed one-liners, that pack the most laughs. Take Iva Lou, who’s always looking to pawn off bawdy literature to the town’s women. Or Theodore’s meticulous inner-thespian who grows overzealously giddy when John Warner makes a campaign stop with wife Elizabeth Taylor in tow.
It’s tough to create compelling entertainment on a shoestring budget while keeping it friendly for the entire family. “Big Stone Gap” does both. Now if we could only see some of these characters a bit more after the credits roll.