Rated PG-13. Time: 1:43.
“Big Stone Gap” was shot in southwest Virginia, in the coal mining town that lends the film its name, and where writer-director Adriana Trigiani (author of the 2000 novel that inspired it) grew up.
Even if you didn’t know all this before seeing the film, there’s such a strong sense of place in the opening scenes — such palpable reverence for the hilly landscapes, mom-and-pop-shop main street and firework-like displays of fall foliage — that you can practically feel the Blue Ridge Mountain air in your lungs just by looking at the screen.
The warmth of spirit behind this project allows its missteps to be mostly forgiven. These include a plot that could easily be mistaken for the story line of a Hallmark Channel movie.
“Big Stone Gap” opens by introducing us to Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), a woman of Italian heritage who tells us, via voiceover, that she was “born and raised in the hills of Virginia, when coal was king.” The year is 1978. Ave is 40, proprietor of the town’s pharmacy, unmarried and, in her words, “the old maid” of Big Stone Gap.
To her credit, Ave Maria’s marital status is of far less concern to her than to the townsfolk who regularly enter her orbit, including her work colleague Fleeta Mullins (Whoopi Goldberg); Iva Lou Wade (Jenna Elfman), the flirtatious local librarian; and Nan MacChesney (Judith Ivey), who would love to see Ave wedded to her hunky coal-mining son Jack (Patrick Wilson).
It seems as though Jack might like that, too, but he’s already involved with the gregarious Sweet Sue (Jane Krakowski), whom Fleeta describes as “a saber-toothed divorcé in need of cash.” For some, Fleeta explains, “Money in the bank means love in the heart.”
If “Big Stone Gap” involved nothing more than listening to eccentric Southerners drop similar pearls of wisdom, it would be both intolerable and forgettable. Fortunately, Ave’s story is more complex: In addition to matters of romance, she’s grappling with the sudden death of her mother and unexpected revelations about her background. In Trigiani’s hands, she and the people who surround her are rendered with dignity and humanity.
A few of the characters, however, skate dangerously close to stereotype. Goldberg, Elfman and Jasmine Guy — in the role of a poor, African-American single mother — have the biggest obstacles to overcome in this regard. But there’s such a light touch throughout, and such an obvious desire on the part of the cast to avoid the country-bumpkin pitfalls that too often afflict portrayals of life below the Mason-Dixon line, that the movie’s pleasures actually deepen as it progresses.
It helps, too, that Judd and Wilson have such lovely chemistry. Judd brings a sturdy pride to Ave that nicely counterbalances Wilson’s passive politeness. More than anything, though, these two just look comfortable together, as if they’re at home.
That may be because the actors actually feel that way. Judd grew up not that far from Big Stone Gap, in Kentucky, and Wilson spent time during his childhood in Big Stone Gap, where his father was raised. Whether that regional familiarity specifically informs their work or not, there’s a natural, understated quality to their performances that works well.
The truth is, you’ll fall in love with Big Stone Gap before you do with the movie’s central romance. Anyone who knows this stop on Virginia’s Crooked Road will appreciate Trigiani’s attention to detail, whether she’s depicting the traditional outdoor performances of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” or the time Elizabeth Taylor accompanied then-husband John Warner on a Senate campaign stop and nearly choked to death on a chicken bone.
(That really happened, by the way. Dagmara Dominczyk, Wilson’s real-life wife, gets to do the choking honors as Taylor, although her face is largely obscured.)
“Big Stone Gap” suffers from some hokey moments, including an ending that’s both implausible and too heavy on the sap. (Also: how does Ave constantly tuck into entire cakes — not just slices, entire cakes — and still look so slim?) In a lot of ways this is a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” sort of movie. But sometimes, especially when the air’s starting to turn brisk, that’s exactly what you need.
(At Barrywoods, Independence, Studio 28, Town Center.)
‘Big Stone Gap’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:43.