LONG-TIME WRITER ADAPTS HER OWN WORK FOR THE BIG SCREEN
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13 Grade: B+
You can always tell when you, as a viewer or reader, are in the company of a great storyteller. It starts immediately, with the warmth of the voice, the seductive lull as it teases you to listen carefully and then captivates you with nuance and specificity, the kind of details you wanted to ask about, but didn’t have to because there they were, right when you needed them. You settle in, knowing that you’ll go anywhere with this storyteller and you trust them, now implicitly, because you know they won’t take advantage of your faith in them. They may be spinning a yarn, but it won’t be some random wanton wild tale. No, this time, this world may offer an escape, but it will be and feel as real as a pleasant dream.
That is the welcome audiences will receive when the lights go down and “Big Stone Gap” unfolds on the screen. This quaint slice of small town life, set in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the home of author, screenwriter and director Adriana Trigiani, has all the hallmarks of quirky Americana. Its protagonist is Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), spinster in the mid-to-late 1970s, who dares to dream of more than settling down because that’s what women are supposed to want. She owns and runs her own business, directs the town theatre troupe and promotes the production across the region, and takes care of her mother Fiammetta (Angelina Fiordellisi), an Italian immigrant with a secret that slowly slips free, upon her death, and gradually shakes Ave to her core.
Fiammetta’s death is but the first of a series of dominos that fall, awakening Ave from a not-so-contented slumber. She comes to realize that things are not quite right with Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey), the leading man of the play and her life for the last several years (who has done everything but bed and wed her, much to her chagrin). And life gets more complicated when her childhood crush, the unattainable Jack MacChesney (Patrick Wilson) seems to be paying a bit more attention to her than to his intended Sweet Sue Tinsley (Jane Krakowski).
The real trick here is how the romantic entanglements mesh with the broader picture, the general discontent Ave can’t quite dispel about her life path. She is a small town native—born and raised—but a woman with the awareness that life can and should offer so much more. She is restless and in search of something more, but frustrated by her inability to break through and free of barriers imprisoning her.
It would be easy to attribute this stirring dynamic to Judd, a charismatic film presence who simply doesn’t work enough to satisfy audiences hungry for her sophisticated touch with such characters. Judd never seeks to outshine anyone in the frame with her, guaranteeing that the talented and eclectic cast—featuring Jenna Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg and Anthony LaPaglia as well as smaller noteworthy turns from Jasmine Guy and Judith Ivey—has equal opportunity to invest their characters with personality and genuine humanity.
Yet, the real life force works behind the curtain. Trigiani is the wizard of the highest order, the consummate storyteller, able to transform the life she inscribed on the page of her novel onto a larger moving canvas without losing any of the specificity and warmth.
And I had the honor of sharing time with her, via phone, as part of her promotional duties in support of the film. Right away, she regaled me with stories about her journey from writing and directing for the stage to her days working in television as a writer/producer on “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” to penning bestselling novels (“Big Stone Gap” is the first of a series of books charting the life of Ave Maria Mulligan). Trigiani spoke of her burning desire to “entertain, enchant and uplift” audiences, rather than assault them with more of the grim nightmares that pass for truth on screens big and small.
With “Big Stone Gap,” Trigiani sets out to crack the cycle of sentimental melodrama by reminding us that adults still dare to dream and sometimes even follow through on achieving those hard to articulate wishes.