An odd, inconsistent picture, Virginia is a film with too many ideas and not enough coherency to bring them all together. There’s obviously something on the mind of the film’s writer-director, Dustin Lance Black, but discerning exactly what is going to challenge even the most astute viewers. What you get out of it might be a glimpse into the life of a small town in America, which might just be good enough, assuming you take the residents as seriously as the filmmaker does.
The title character is Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), a schizophrenic, chain-smoking mother who is engaged in a long-standing affair with the town sheriff,a Mormon family man named Dick (Ed Harris). Her son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), doesn’t know who his real father is, although everyone suspects that it’s Dick. Dick is planning on running for state Senate, which means the frequent stops to Virginia’s house, along with her “pregnancy” — we know it’s faked but nobody else does — inconvenient. Dick has a daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts), who is liked by Emmett, despite the adults deciding the two cannot be together.
Four character in, and you likely already have an understanding of the type of juggling act attempted by Black. There are a few more prominent characters, too, and some of them are so silly that you can’t help but laugh at their actions. But to them, everything is as serious as the most deadpan person in the room. Only rarely do the characters laugh, and it isn’t often that the film urges us to laugh at them. They are important and the film does not want to discredit them even a little.
This is a decision which occasionally doesn’t factor in, because there are scenes here and there where the tone changes from serious to funny. The characters almost perform skits, the music turns from solemn to happy, and a warmer color palette sneaks in. But it’s one scene and done, and then we’re back to the more grim experience that is the rest of the film. These moments pop up every now and then, and while individually they might be fine scenes, they detract from the overall experience by completely messing with the tone.
Some things happen without any explanation or character motivation. Why, despite hacking up a lung every few minutes and being told that “something is growing on your lung,” does Virginia both (1) refuse treatment and (2) continue smoking cigarettes at any chance she gets. If there’s one thing I’ll personally take out of Virginia, it’s the anti-smoking message it has. You can blame her mental illness if you want, but that’s lazy, isn’t it?
The film also opens with one of its final scenes, and then rewinds back a year, leading us up to the point we see earlier. Except it doesn’t quite do that, because it misleads us right off the bat. You’re not actually seeing what you think you’re seeing, and that’s going to lead to some audience frustration. We’ve seen this type of thing before in films, but when the overall product isn’t terribly good anyway, it really stands out. The ending is powerful, but there was no reason for this opening scene to cheat (or even for the film to begin that way).
Part of me wants to ignore the scattered plot, silly characters, tonal inconsistencies and murky ideas because Virginia is an original and seemingly personal film. It takes chances and risks, and it should be applauded for that. That it fails primarily because it isn’t sure how to balance everything at once is a shame, but it comes mostly out of ambition outweighing talent and experience, not because it wasn’t worth making.
This is the type of film that is an actor’s dream. It allows for raw, inspired performances. To that end, Jennifer Connelly delivers in spades. She largely downplays the mental illness aspect to her character — she’s not “quirky” due to her schizophrenia — but it does affect her, and there are several important scenes that she nails. Whatever flaws Virginia has, its lead actress isn’t one of them. In fact, I kind of wish the focus was solely on her, instead of the multitude of supporting and secondary characters.
Ed Harris works perfectly as the sheriff, playing a character of hypocrisy and contradiction. He moves back and forth between a man of comfort and quiet to one of pure rage, and he makes both sides to his character’s personality believable. Just as much of a main character is the one played by Harrison Gilbertson, and while he’s a good enough actor, he can’t compete with these veterans. And, as an aside, just who is he talking to when his narration appears? Virginia is speaking to a man — the film makes that clear — but sometimes her son has voice-over narration, too, and it’s never explained why or who he’s talking to.
Virginia might not be a good film, but ambition and a talented cast can help you overcome a lot of problems. It’s a film that has some great acting, and a lot of ideas, even if many of those ideas are muddled in the plot and tone presented to us by writer-director Dustin Lance Black. It’s not necessarily worth watching, but if you want something different, you might just find it to be something to check out.