South Cover Girl Ashley Judd Shines in Big Stone Gap

It doesn’t take one to be from the deep valleys of Virginia to understand the cuddle of a small town.  The sentiment is familiar, like getting a bear hug from a relative you haven’t seen in who-knows-how-long, or smelling the perfume of burnt leaves and recalling autumn in the woods.  Applying this tendency in cinema is tricky.  Egotistical directors consider it below them, but smart producers know it sells.  Look at Lifetime and Hallmark films.  They saturate much of their aired material in small town complex until dialogue deliverance feels about as sappy as a White Oak tree (or this metaphor).  Still, they find an audience.   


Big Stone Gap, which was theatrically released by Picturehouse in October 2015 and is now available on DVD, escapes the comparison to those made-for-television films, because its approach is less mawkish and more candid.  Writer/director/author Adriana Trigiani applies her seasoned knowledge of the film’s Appalachian setting and story to best avoid the cavity of “small town” cliches in her film adaptation of her New York Times bestselling novel by the same name. 



The film was shot entirely on location in the real-life town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, Trigiani’s hometown.  Set in 1978, the story of protagonist Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd) features the typical personalities portrayed in local folklore.  The characters may reflect a specific type, but I defer that to emotional accessibility.  Every American town, regardless of size, seems to have its Ave Maria, Sweet Sue Tinsley (Jane Krakowski), and Fleeta Mullins (Whoopi Goldberg).  


Almost overnight, single 40-year Ave (pronounced like the Virgin Mary, “Ah-vay,” not “Eva,” as Sweet Sue continually mispronounces) Mulligan wakes up as the old maid of Big Stone Gap.  Born and raised in the small Appalachian town, she is the daughter of an Italian immigrant, Fiammetta Mulligen, a prominent seamstress in the community.  After her mother’s death, Ave learns through her mother’s will that she was pregnant when she came to the United States, and Ave’s biological father is still in Italy along with the rest of her immediate family.           


Meanwhile, Coal miner and bachelor Jack MacChesney (Patrick Wilson) secretly adores Ave from a distance, but both seem to be in a similar romantic rut.  Ave attempts a relationship with Yankee Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey), who is more concerned with his reputation as the local high school band teacher.  Jack takes more to town flirt and recent divorcee Sweet Sue’s two sons than her excessive displays of public affection.  Just when you think the plot is about to fold into happily-ever-after vibrato, Ave startles Jack’s humble intentions of settling down and “get murried.” 


With the arrival of Ave’s familial news in the film’s first half hour, it does not serve as the plot’s central climax.  Instead, the secret lends the story an underlying vibration of stakes.  Each subplot links Ave’s personal life to the community she considers family and the place she calls home.  Judd, Wilson, and company create an endearing ensemble in which everyone looks like they’re enjoying themselves, a crucial aspect to a romantic comedy’s endurance.  The cast roster includes notable talents Anthony LaPaglia as Spec Broadwater (the town lawyer), Jenna Elfman as Iva Lou Wade (the town librarian, among other things), and Judith Ivey as Nan MacChesney (Jack’s caring and concerned mother).  Newcomer Erika Coleman as Ave’s new hiree at the pharmacy, Pearl Grimes, makes an especially graceful debut alongside impressive talents including Goldberg and Jasmine Guy as Pearl’s mother, Leah Grimes.    


The setting, tucked away cornucopia of mountain roads and valley drawls, comforts and performs along with film’s retro apparel composition.  Further adding to the flavor of the film is its soundtrack, featuring music by John Leventhal with songs performed by his wife, Rosanne Cash.  The album also spotlights local talent who appear as musicians in the film’s theater scenes. 


Trigiani writes what she knows; her style is full of fun exchanges and delightfully surprising twists.  When she wrote and published “Big Stone Gap” the novel, she shared with the world a wonderful helping of Appalachian culture as only she could.  The film version was actually a work in progress for many years until Academy Award Winning producer Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love) came onto the project with Altar Identity Studios, a subsidiary of Media Society. 


By extending her appreciation for her hometown, Trigiani honors the small town syndrome without resting on its conventional formula.  Her story of Ave Maria and life in the ridges of Big Stone Gap does not predictably trace the basic romantic comedy account.  Ave is a strong and smart lead who knows what she wants, which does not amount to settling down and enduring the same complacent fate as those who remain in Big Stone Gap.         


Some might use the word “charming” when describing Trigiani’s written world of neighbor-to-neighbor intimacy.  Another adjective used multiple times now, “small,” also seems unavoidable when describing Big Stone Gap.  In the realm of “small” exists the full, the satisfied, and the yen for completeness.  Such describes my viewing experience of Big Stone Gap; it calms like a nice breeze of alpine allure, with just enough honesty and interest to make you want to sip apple cider on the porch of some mountainside home.