Existing somewhere between the recent spat of faith-based cinema and an elongated episode of Gilmore Girls, Big Stone Gap travels back in time to a simpler era where everyone knew everyone else, the people were kinder and the world moved at a slower pace.
Set in the coal-mining town of Big Stone Gap, Virg. circa 1977, Ave (Ashley Judd) is the middle-aged town spinster that the town is overly concerned with seeing her settling down. But Ave is not the quiet, reserved librarian with too many cats, but a self-professed loner who isn’t interested in marriage, sharing her life with another or anything beyond a good time for the night.
The men of the town range from nice but slow, Jack (Patrick Wilson), to active but narcissistic, Theodore (John Benjamin Hickey). Both try to court Ave, with varying levels of success and rejection, but Ave’s old man was the abusive type and she has no interest in letting a man back in her life. When Ave’s Mom dies, Ave learns that the man she thought was her father, was not, and that her biological father is alive and well in Italy.
This search for her real father, and possibly redemption for the Y chromosome, makes Ave question her sense of place. Does she belong in the simple town of Big Stone Gap or in the romantic splendor of Italy?
Big Stone Gap is a mid-life crisis movie, albeit not one totally concerned with Ave’s crisis. Instead, Big Stone Gap spends much of its runtime with the colorful characters of Big Stone Gap, characters that never left and never dream of leaving. There is a world out there, but that’s for the Aves of the world. They prefer to stay in town, performing at the Community Theater, chasing after old high school flames and keeping on-going grudges stoked. When a subplot brings Elizabeth Taylor to town, the town is abuzz with the chance to show off their tradition and heritage. When the visit doesn’t go as planned, it’s no big deal, the town is better off without Hollywood royalty anyway.
Adapting her own novel for the screen, director Adriana Trigiani imbues Big Stone Gap with small town Christianity that isn’t didactic, but twinges of the lawless justice of a quick sock to the jaw (for the men) or a good dressing down (for the ladies). When the movie touches on the subjects of race and class, it does so lightly. So lightly that it almost feels like a preventive measure taken against future criticism.
Big Stone Gap is not an entirely wrong-headed view of the past, it is a personal one, but one that still feels forced. The performances are as good as the material lets them be, the camera doesn’t try to do anything fancy and the whole thing comes off like a well cast made-for-TV movie as harmless as a sleepy summer breeze.