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Family Movie Review: Big Stone Gap (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 103 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This slice-of-life story about the hijinks going on in a small Virginia town in the late 1970s includes a shot from behind of a woman in her underwear; some flirting, kissing, suggested sexual content, and a couple shown in bed together; a character passes away; some cursing and a storyline involving a premarital pregnancy; jokes about birth control and virginity; and adults drinking and smoking cigarettes.

‘Big Stone Gap’ is a likable-but-forgettable story about a woman finally coming into her own at age 40. There are some meaningful, beautiful moments here, but the film is unsurprising from beginning to end.

By Roxana Hadadi

Ashley Judd is infinitely relatable, and “Big Stone Gap” rests squarely on her empathetic, very capable shoulders. As Ave Maria, an unmarried 40-year-old woman living in a coal-mining Virginia town in the late 1970s, Judd is practical, prickly, and kind, but she can’t make the story more interesting. This tale of a woman finding herself — and, of course, finding love — at a later age is nicely familiar but mostly unsurprising.

The film’s writer and director, Adriana Trigiani, worked as a producer on the sitcoms “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” and “Big Stone Gap” — based on her own novel — has the same kind of slice-of-life feel as those shows did. Big Stone Gap is a defined place that you recognize: Set in the hills of Virginia, with family-owned businesses and small-town characters, Big Stone Gap has the rhythms and traditions of a place where everyone not only knows each other, but also knows everything about each other. It’s the kind of place that can either absorb you into itself or keep you at arm’s length, and Ave simultaneously feels both.

As a 40-year-old woman with no husband, Ave (Judd, of “Insurgent”) lives with her mother whom she adores; helps run the family drugstore, having stepped into the role previously occupied by her distant, now-dead father; and is known by everyone for directing their town-wide theater production every year. She seems fulfilled with her friendships but dissatisfied with her overall life (“It seemed like happiness was for other people”), and when her beloved mother passes away, Ave becomes particularly unmoored — and even more so when she learns something fundamental about her identity that she never knew before.

Armed with this new knowledge, Ave begins reevaluating her life. Maybe she should start a relationship with her best friend of many years, Teddy (John Benjamin Hickey, of “Get On Up”), or maybe she should pursue the romantic tension building between her and town hottie Jack (Patrick Wilson, of “Insidious: Chapter 2”). Maybe she should read more books, as encouraged by her close friend, town librarian Iva Lou (Jenna Elfman, of “Friends With Benefits”). And maybe she should listen to the advice of longtime pharmacy employee Fleeta (Whoopi Goldberg, of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), who encourages her to stick up for herself against her vindictive aunt, who believes that the family pharmacy and home should have gone to her when Ave’s father died.

Amid all this, Ave is just trying to live a happy life, and what “Big Stone Gap” does well is presenting both the powerful moments and the daily minutiae of living in a small town. When Ave’s mother passes away, everyone attends the funeral in the clothes Ave’s mom, an accomplished seamstress, made from them, ranging from band outfits to prom dresses. It’s a moving, enlightening sight. When Ave sits at her kitchen table after the service, in a final gown created for her by her mother, surrounded by desserts and casseroles left by considerate neighbors, that’s equally weighty. And Jack benefits from solid character development, too, especially when he notes in a quiet, sadly self-aware moment, “Everything has passed me away” — working all day in a coal mine, for 22 years since the age of 18, will do that to you.

But while “Big Stone Gap” scores big on little moments, it falters with tone, going for a kitschy subplot with actress Elizabeth Taylor that goes nowhere and relying on musical flourishes, like that aforementioned townwide theater production, for laughs. Those aren’t the elements of “Big Stone Gap” that you’ll remember, unlike Ava’s infinitely quotable speech about how love, rather than marriage, is the end-all, be-all for her: “I’d like to have some fun. I’d like to be kissed. I’d like to be held. I’d like a man to look at me with the whole world in his eyes.” Judd’s and Wilson’s performances provide the most emotionally resonant moments of “Big Stone Gap,” while the rest of the film often gets too goofy for its own good.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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