Here in the southeast – or at the very least, here in my home state of Georgia – there's a particular sort of production that tends to be very popular with small-town community theatres. In broad terms, we could probably call these shows “southern comedy/dramas,” though it's a little more specific than that. They're funny, but usually more smile-inducing funny than slap-your-knee funny. They're dramatic, but in a gentle, warmly familiar sort of way. They're often set in the past, they're usually set in small towns and they often feature a bunch of likably eccentric supporting characters and a comparably sane, conflicted protagonist.
Small Town Gap feels like a particularly clumsy version of one of these community theatre productions, which is surprising when you consider that it cost a whole lot more than any of those shows and features a cast full of instantly-recognizable actors. Perhaps the folks who keep buying tickets for all those southern comedy/dramas will find it a blandly pleasant experience, but I suspect most others will have a hard time sitting through this sloppy, phony mess.
Our story is set in the late 1970s and centers around Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd, Bug), a middle-aged woman who has spent her entire life in the humble town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. It's a small mining town where everybody seems to know everybody, and the biggest social event of the year is a cheesy outdoor theatrical production (directed with clumsy flair by Ave herself). She didn't intend to stay in town quite this long, but time just managed to slip away from her and she somehow managed to become known as the town's resident Old Maid. Now, she finds herself at a personal crossroads of sorts: does she leave things as they are, does she try to find a respectable suitor and settle down or does she just pack up and leave?
None of these questions feel particularly urgent, as the film is largely content to merely observe the small-scale rhythms of everyday life in Big Stone Gap. I have no problem with that approach – I like a good slice-of-life movie as much as the next man – but the problem is that almost none of this material feels like actual life. Somehow, almost everything about the movie manages to feel artificial, from the “aw, shucks” accents the actors employ to the overwritten dialogue to the reaction shots of random extras.
The film is based on a novel by Adriana Trigiana, who also wrote and directed this film. I haven't read any of Ms. Trigiana's books, so I can't judge her work as a novelist. For all I know, they're delightful portraits of low-key Americana. However, I can't help but wonder if someone less attached to the material might have been able to recognize just how off-key much of this movie is and how many basic, fundamental mistakes are being made. Shots are held too long, editing is sloppy, characters enter scenes in oddly unconvincing ways, pacing is erratic, the tone is all over the place... it certainly doesn't feel like there's a firm hand at the wheel.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film (aside from the bizarre scene in which Elizabeth Taylor visits the town and has an unfortunate encounter with a chicken wing) is that the usually-reliable actors are mostly pretty bad. So many scenes feel strangely miscalculated, from the moment where wise old friend Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple) sternly berates Ave for placing a flower on her father's grave to the scene in which town librarian Jenna Elfman (Looney Tunes: Back in Action) breathlessly attempts to sell Ave on the virtues of of Chinese Face Reading to the scene in which Ave's childhood sweetheart Patrick Wilson (Little Children) makes a clumsy declaration of love. Judd manages to make her character feel recognizably human, but almost everyone else seems to be trying (and failing) to make the best of the corny writing they've been given.
I feel that I can objectively call Big Stone Gap a poorly-crafted film, but on a more personal level, I'll admit that this sort of drippy nostalgia is the sort of thing I tend to be allergic to. The small town that Big Stone Gap depicts is the kind of town that only exists in the hazy memories of people who haven't been home in a while. You can get away with that if the characters and story are rich enough (Mayberry was certainly an enjoyable place to visit), but Big Stone Gap fails on both counts and ends up accentuating just how aggravatingly artificial everything else is. It's a good-hearted movie, but unfortunately, that's more or less the only positive thing that can be said about it.
Big Stone Gap
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 2015