Film Review: Virginia

Give a young <i>auteur </i>some indie pull and look what happens: Strictly recommended to anyone who needs to see a schizophrenic single mother robbing a bank in a gorilla mask and housedress.

If this were say, the 1950s, you could easily imagine the publicity campaign slogan for this film, which would run along the lines of “There never was a single mother like Virginia!” As played by Jennifer Connelly, she’s certainly a piece of work: schizophrenic, and making you believe it by carrying on with Richard Tipton (Ed Harris), the married Mormon sheriff of her tiny Southern backwater town, trying to give her son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) a “better life,” faking a pregnancy, robbing the local bank while wearing a gorilla mask, and, oh yeah, coughing up a lot of blood.

The above character description of the titular figure just about summarizes the determinedly quirky plot of this wrongheaded project, written by Dustin Lance Black in his feature directorial debut. All the admirable lucidity and insightful character observation he brought to his screenplay for Milk flies clear out the window here, in this hubristic farrago which just about defines “self-indulgent.” One senses (as a raised Mormon himself) that he is trying to work out some kind of diatribe against small-town small-mindedness and religious hypocrisy, but the tone veers so wildly and uncertainly from black comedy to would-be wrenching emotional drama that you just stare at the screen, blinking in disbelief.

None of it makes any sense—it’s deadeningly repetitive as well—and an interestingly varied cast sinks into the morass. Maybe Connelly thought this role would bring her a second Oscar: She certainly works hard enough at being the determined village loony and loose cannon, but, as is so often the case, there’s something icy about her, and at no time does she ever truly engage your sympathy. Harris is stuck like cement into a disastrously underwritten part, while Amy Madigan, who plays his unsuspecting wife, gets a suicide-attempt scene which is more risible than tragic. Gilbertson delivers rote, anguished young beauty in the kind of role Brandon De Wilde once made his specialty, and which an early death saved him from doing anymore. Emma Roberts is his quiveringly sensitive match for innocence-destroyed as Jessie, Tipton’s daughter, with whom he becomes tidily involved. Toby Jones, Carrie Preston and Yeardley Smith bring their own peculiarities to a film already drastically brimming over with oddness.