“Big Stone Gap”, which was written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, based on her book of the same name, opens with a voiceover by Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd) enlightening us to the particular qualities and quirks of the titular coal mining town in the mountains of Virginia where she grew up. And though she’s referring to her childhood in the 50’s, when the movie flashes forward twenty years a few moments later, hardly anything seems to have changed from what Ave Maria has just described, as if here in Big Stone Gap the 50’s just kind of blended with the 60’s which just kind of mixed with the 70’s. Why they continue putting on the very same play, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, they have always put on, as if any modification of the past by send the populace reeling. I mean, would it kill these people to try “Our Town”? Just once?! This lends a frozen-in-time feel, one that could easily come on like nostalgia, the a syrupy sensation that there is no place like home, and while that is there in doses, it is tempered by Ave Maria herself, a character who mostly defies the sugary confection by fearing that in all those years that passed from the voiceover to now, life itself has passed her by.
Ashley Judd is incredibly equipped to play these sorts of roles, vacillating between genuine joy and understated melancholy with the greatest of ease, often within the same scene, occasionally within the same moment, like the instance when she’s eating cake while standing up, listening and half trying to ignore another person spouting twaddle while taking great comfort in just snacking on that chocolate dessert. It’s sort of her entire state of being in capsule; having to shut out so much nonsense swirling around her, finding resolve from within, or in a plate of calories, of which there seem to be an awful lot. After all, she’s forty year olds and – egads! – not married. This, however, is more a concern of the town folk than the screenplay itself, which gives Ave Maria the willingness to fight back against that sort of Hallmark Channel hogwash. At one point, in fact, Ave Maria is referred to as Mount Vesuvius, standing there placidly, yet waiting to erupt, that eruption spurred by all the gossip pertaining to her relationship status. Often in Judd’s eyes you can see that eruption brewing. The question is, will it come?
Eh, yes and no. Much of the plot hinges on her friendship with Jack (Patrick Wilson), the local coal-mining hunk with solid sideburns, who clearly loves her, but hitches himself to Sweet Sue (Jane Krakowski) instead even though she’s clearly wrong for him and knows it, while Ave Maria hitches herself to Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey) even though he’s wrong for her and she knows it. Still, this isn’t a case of simple Idiot Plot, the characters having to wear invisible blinders to the truth, He wants the simple life that Big Stone Gap offers, which he sees in Sweet Sue and not Ave Maria, because Ave Maria is clearly itching for something else, and has been for a long time. Home Is Where The Heart Is, and All That Jazz, but sometimes you still have to Go Walkabout, and “Big Stone Gap”, for all its easy-bake storytelling, still has the gumption to know that Ave Maria is not the kind of character who would fall into the conventional narrative trap of sticking to the path rather than wandering into the deep, dark forest.
At least, it seems like it does, which is where “Big Stone Gap” goes off the rails. Though the film is set in coalmine country, you never really the soot on the faces of the miners, just as the one mine “incident” is less about the inherent dangers of that perilous industry than a drawn out excuse to put Ave Maria and Jack together. And this is fine, of course, because “Big Stone Gap” isn’t “North Country”; it’s a warm-hearted romance, one made with so much granulated sugar, food coloring and flavor extract, but still. And yet, this setting, which emits a sense of “place” in the early-going, begins to feel more and more staged as the film progresses, especially as all the characters around Ave Maria suddenly begin pulling strings in order to prevent what she seems to so desperately want. By the end, when everyone gathers in the town ampitheater, determined to keep Ave Maria right where she is, Big Stone Gap felt more like Seahaven, and I began to fear that Ave Maria was simply starring in her own version of The Truman Show.