Initial Note: Why have Mormons become the hottest religious group in the entertainment industry? Between TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives and the success of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, heck, even rumors that Mitt Romney might appear on SNL, it shows that it’s all about Mormons these days. So as a fair warning, just be aware that Virginia is also about members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just find it funny that it seems like the entertainment industry just figured out Mormons existed a few years ago.
There’s a long tradition of successful screenwriters becoming directors. It seems like a no-brainer; after all, someone who has a few successful scripts under his or her belt obviously know how to construct a good story. It’s a common practice: no less than Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone found more success initially as screenwriters than as directors, and they ended up better directors because of it. Of course, some screenwriters are naturally better writers than directors: Charlie Kaufman‘s directing debut was probably the worst of the movies he’s written so far. Dustin Lance Black, writer of J. Edgar and Milk (for which he won an Oscar) is the latest to attempt the transition from writer to writer/director with Virginia, his first directorial credit in over a decade. Virginia originally debuted in September 2010 at the Toronto International Film Festival as What’s Wrong With Virginia?, and the fact that it didn’t surface until over a year and a half later hints at the answer to that question: quite a bit, actually, and I’m talking about the film itself.
Virginia is set in a Virginia boardwalk town and stars Jennifer Connelly as Virginia, a mentally ill single mother of teenager Emmet (Harrison Gilbertson). It seems like Emmett’s only purpose in life is to pine over Jessie (Emma Roberts), the teenager daughter of the town sheriff, Dick Tipton (Ed Harris). Jessie wants nothing to do with Jessie for numerous reasons, but primarily because her father has been carrying on a years-long affair with Virginia and it’s very likely that Emmett and Jessie are half-siblings. Complicating the situation further is that Sheriff Tipton not only sees himself as a devout Mormon, but he is also running for state senator. Tipton realizes how difficult it is to run for public office when his private life is in shambles, especially once Jessie and Emmett start dating and Virginia starts claiming that she is pregnant with his child.
Connelly is brilliant and by far the best reason to see this movie. Her display of emotion runs from tearfully happy to frightfully stubborn and afraid. However, she is just about as great in every movie she is in, so you won’t miss much if you skip this one. Harris is also perfectly cast, but since he is a small-town sheriff Virginia quickly falls into the ranks of countless movies about small-town authority figures who think they can control forces that far exceed their powers. Tipton clearly doesn’t think the rules of politics and religion apply to him, and Harris pulls the arrogance off well. Like other figures who sees themselves as unaccountable, the lengths he goes to justify his actions are chilling.
The weakest segments of the film are the ones that focus on Emmett and Jessie’s relationship. Emmett’s role is one that would’ve probably been played by River Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Christian Bale twenty or twenty-five years ago, and they probably could’ve done something with it. As it is, the role doesn’t offer Gilbertson much beyond two doses of youthful angst and one dose of immature rage, which produces a constant pout on his face. Similarly wasted is Roberts, whose character all but disappears from the film for the last half hour until its final moments. But that’s no fault of the young actors. The problem is that Black has made the relationship between Connelly and Harris’ characters and their individual struggles so interesting that everything else pales in comparison. As a result, the Romeo and Juliet subplot feels more like a distraction than scenes that move the movie forward. I’d much rather have seen more scenes featuring the other supporting characters, like Tipton’s wife (Amy Madigan, who is also wonderful in a subdued performance), the creepy amusement park owner (Toby Jones), and the nurse played by Yeardley Smith (although since Smith is the voice of Lisa Simpson, it’s very hard to listen to her speak and not wonder why her skin isn’t yellow).
Like the movies of other writers-turned-directors, Virginia is visually bland and really leans on its dialogue to move the plot. One gets the feeling that Black is exorcising a lot of personal demons in this film, as it certainly doesn’t appeal to the sensibilities of the general public. Though it all leads up to a great “everything that could go wrong does go wrong” standoff, it’s really not worth the journey to get there. Reportedly Black did a thorough re-edit of the film, but I think the problems were in the initial script, not the editing.
As a final note, I thought Black would know better than to utilize the Magical Negro trope, but like other movies aiming for “depth” with a folksy wisdom character one pops up in the narrative. C’mon Black, you’re a strong enough writer that you don’t have to resort to such gimmicky and borderline offensive stock characters!
Rating: Connelly and Harris are great as usual, it’s just unfortunate that they couldn’t have worked from a stronger script (4.5/10)