Saturday, May 19, 2012

Movie Review: Virginia

Virginia ** ½
Directed by: Dustin Lance Black.   
Written By: Dustin Lance Black.
Starring: Jennifer Connelly (Virginia), Ed Harris (Sheriff Dick Tipton), Harrison Gilbertson (Emmett), Emma Roberts (Jessie Tipton), Amy Madigan (Mrs. Tipton), Toby Jones (Max), Carrie Preston (Betty), Yeardley Smith (Mrs. Whitaker), Dan Schippers (Mormon Boy).

Note: I saw this film at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival (When it was called Whats Wrong with Virginia), where the reviews were quite bad. I do know that director Dustin Lance Black went back and did a re-edit of this film after that premiere, that he says is much stronger than the version I saw – although the reviews I have read this week upon the films release do not really back that up – as they still describe much of what I saw. However, in the interest of fairness, I felt I had to say that this is a review of the previous cut. Because of my mixed feelings on the movie, and the contention Black makes that he understands the criticisms the film received at TIFF, and improved them in the re-edit, I may well check the film out again on video – I do not have time to see it in theaters however.

I seem to be the only person in the world who didn’t hate Dustin Lance Black’s Virginia. Yes, the film is a mess, and yes it bites off more than it can chew – especially considering that Black is a first time director here – but it’s at times such a gloriously entertaining mess, that I couldn’t help liking it on some level. It is an overly ambitious film – but I would rather see one of those than a boring film that plays it safe and delivers. The film contains echoes of Douglas Sirk, David Lynch and Todd Haynes in its depiction of small town life, and the sexual currents under the surface. While I admit that it is a mess of a film, I also have to say that I enjoyed much of it – and that I look forward to seeing what Black comes up with next.

The film stars Jennifer Connelly is a wondrously loopy performance as Virginia. She is perhaps schizophrenic, and there is certainly something wrong with her, but she is also rather sweet and endearing. She has been raising her son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) by herself for years – no one knows who the father is. Or do they? She has been having an affair with Sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris) since before Emmett was born. Tipton likes his sex kinky, and can’t get that from his straight laced wife (Amy Madigan) – but Virginia seems to have no inhibitions at all. But now that Tipton is running for State Senate, it appears like it`s time for the affair to end. Virginia, not willing to accept this, pretends she’s pregnant and starts telling the whole town that it’s Tipton’s baby.

Meanwhile Emmett goes about trying to take care of himself, and his mother, just like he always has. He falls for Tipton’s daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts), and allows himself to because he thinks he can prove that they are not actually half siblings. He has no delusions of who his mother is, but loves her anyway. All he really wants to do is get out of this small, Christian, Southern town.

Virginia features a story that veers off course, and tries to do too much. Black feels the need to expose all the towns’ sexual secrets – and it starts to appear at times that everyone is kinky in one way or another – no matter how straight laced their outward appearance. He introduces us to too many characters that he doesn’t develop – I never could figure out why Emmett and Jessie were so in love with each other, unless it was just futile teenage rebellion a la Romero and Juliet. And the character played by Toby Jones – a respectable Republican booster who is also a cross dresser – is unnecessary no matter how enjoyable Jones is playing him. The story takes too many side journeys into the unbelievable, and features some unnecessary crime scenes and violence.

So yes, the film is flawed. Whatever the other critics have said about the film is undeniably true – it is a complete mess of a film. But it’s also a film that keep me consistently engaged with it. Connelly goes for broke in her performance as Virginia – and for once I was glad to see a portrait of mental illness that wasn’t completely bleak and depressing. Harris has perhaps a harder role – he has to kind of juggle the different genres the film tries to straddle – but he does it well. I loved the candy colored look of the film and the film was consistently funny. No, Virginia is not a great movie – perhaps it isn’t even a very good one. But it is a film that kept me engaged throughout.

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