Last night was a big evening for Virginians, not simply because of the opening of the Virginia Film Festival. Certainly, it’s worth celebrating the 27th year of the festival, which screens over a hundred films in Charlottesville, VA. But what’s also noteworthy is that the headlining film, “Big Stone Gap” is “made in Virginia, by a Virginian, about Virginians.” The point was repeated throughout the night by Jody Kielbasa, Governor Terry McAuliffe, and director/author Adriana Trigiani.
“Big Stone Gap” is an extraordinary cinematic project, as it was shot in a mere 20 days in southwest Virginia. The audience enthusiastically welcomed members of the cast at this world premiere: Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Jenna Elfman, Jasmine Guy, Paul Wilson, Bridget Gabbe, and Erika Coleman. At times it seemed like a big town meeting because a good portion of the audience hailed from Big Stone Gap. You could hear murmuring about the sites in the town as they appeared in the film. The careful attention to the landmarks and picturesque hills of the Appalachian region is to be expected, as Adriana pointed out that Big Stone Gap is supposed to feature as a character in the movie.
Backtracking a little, “Big Stone Gap” is based on Adriana’s novel about the area, following spinster Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd). For Ave, 1978 is quite a life changing year, following the death of her Italian mother. It comes complete with an eccentric and sometimes over the top group of townsfolk, including handsome Jack MacChesney (Patrick Wilson), her wild friend Iva Lou Wade (Jenna Elfman), young Pearl Grimes (Erika Coleman), to pharmaceutical assistant Fleeta (Whoopi Goldberg). There’s a bit of fun with a real incident that occurred in the area: the visit of Senator John Warner and then wife Elizabeth Taylor, who choked on a fried chicken bone and had to be rushed to the local hospital.
Overall, the romantic dramedy offers a nice, focused portrayal of a coal-mining town in southwest Virginia. Anyone who has lived in suburban and rural Virginia can easily feel that they are speeding right along with Trigiani’s camera on the hilly roads. It’s particularly familiar these days with the present fall colors. Whoopi Goldberg nearly steals the film with her hilarious quips and straight talking. A couple of times the pacing seems a little off, such that the film could have been trimmed down a little bit. Ashley Judd and Patrick Wilson do well in carrying the film with strong performances. It’s a beautiful story about lost love, identity, and finding home right around you.
Following the screening, there was a discussion with the cast. (Sadly, Whoopi Goldberg could not attend.) As a director, Adriana stated that she saw her role as serving the actors. It was a sentiment that resonated with the actors. Ashley Judd and Jenna Elfman shared that they felt comfortable working with Adriana. Jasmine Guy added poignantly, “[Adriana] has a way of loving you so you can love yourself.” Judd, Elfman, and the Wilson brothers all grew up or had family members from small towns (Big Stone Gap, in fact, for the Wilsons); they also reflected on the opportunity to work on a project hearkening back to old small town values and community. Whether that is mere nostalgia (the setting as 1978) is a topic that can be debated elsewhere.
Adriana is not just a savvy writer and director, but also downright hilarious in her remarks about filming in Big Stone Gap. She regaled the audience with stories about the endless supply of cakes from the community and (admittedly) a certain degree of cockiness (for lack of a better word) about being a director. “I’m directing this film… I’m going to speed everywhere! … Officer, I’m just on my way to the set.” When asked if she would do a sequel, Adriana said, “I’d love to do it. We’ll figure it out.”
After the event, the cast lingered at the stage to sign autographs and take photos with attendees. Many people brought copies of the book to get signed. It felt more like a community event at times rather than a Hollywood, star-studded gathering. It’s an experience not likely to be found at the glitzy film festivals in other parts of the country. I’ll take a line from Governor McAuliffe as I say, “Forget Hollywood!” Come out to Charlottesville and see what we’re up to.