Review of Virginia

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A sheriff is thrown a loop when his daughter begins to date the son of a charming but mentally-ill woman with whom the sheriff has engaged in a two-decade-long affair.
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"Virginia" Movie Review

--Rating: R
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: May 25, 2012
Directed by: Dustin Lance Black
Genre: Drama

"Virginia" is a second attempt at the same movie for writer and director Dustin Lance Black. In 2010 he released "What's Wrong with Virginia?" only to receive less than stellar reviews. This came as a slight surprise for Black as he had just won the Academy Award for best screenplay for "Milk," the biopic that chronicled the life of politician and activist Harvey Milk. It seems the adulation and appreciation in Hollywood did not extend quite far enough for the original version of the movie to resonate with critics, and it was unanimously panned. This version, retitled simply as "Virginia," explores the lives of residents of a small Virginia Beach town, including a woman named Virginia. It has been mentioned that the movie is loosely based on Dustin Lance Black's life, since his family has a history of mental illness.

It is never mentioned whether the movie is named after the town where the story takes place, after the movie's main character, or both. However, it doesn't take the viewer long to realize that both the place and the person are central characters in the film.

Virginia (played by Jennifer Connelly) has issues. It is apparent from the beginning of the movie that she is a bit unhinged. Through periodic narrations from her son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), we learn that Virginia is a schizophrenic who refuses to face her illness and properly treat it. Because of her fragile state, her son is often forced to take care of her--which appears sometimes as a typical mother and son relationship, but more often than not leaves him dealing with issues that no child should have to face. Emmett is desperate to escape the town, and although he never vocalizes it, he wishes to put distance between him and his train wreck mother.

The movie covers a span of a year, which parallels Richard Tipton's (Ed Harris) run for state senate. Virginia has led Emmett to believe that Richard is his father, a statement Emmett has never believed. He is so convinced that his mother is wrong. He runs off with his girlfriend, Jessie (Emma Roberts), and gets married. Jessie is Richard's and his straight-laced wife Roseanna's (Amy Madigan) daughter.
Virginia stands by her story that Richard is Emmett's father, which is fueled by the fact that Virginia and Richard have been having an affair for the last 17 years. When the Mormon family man decides to run for senator, he chooses a platform as the law-and-order candidate (he's the town sheriff) and breaks things off with Virginia. However, he pays her hush money for a period of several months to buy her silence.

Schizophrenia is a constant theme throughout the movie. Between Virginia's diagnosis, which she refuses to treat with medication, and the frantic pace of the movie, there is a sense of mental and emotional turmoil that runs through the entire movie. There's a town that all but hates itself--practically every resident wants to be somewhere else. The sheriff is trying to get elected to political office. Virginia would love nothing more than to move to San Francisco with Emmett. There's a pregnancy scare, a cancer diagnosis, blackmail, extortion, Mormons, a political campaign, affairs, an elopement and other twists and turns that will keep you intrigued and scratching your head while trying to keep up with them all.
There is also a sense of desperation that runs through both the characters in the movie and the town itself, though the town's desperation most likely reflects the views of its residents. People are desperate to either be somewhere else or become others they aren't. Everyone, that is, other than Virginia. This is one reason she refuses to take her meds--she does not want to change or forget who she is. It is an ironic twist in the movie--watching supposedly sane, normal characters pretending to be people they aren't, while the supposedly "crazy" one is the most genuine person in town. Even Emmett, in desperation, attempts to rob the store where he works, hoping to score enough money to leave the town behind and take Jessie with him.

"Virginia" is a bit like a car accident: You know you should look away because it's indecent to watch others suffer, but at the same time, you cannot take your eyes off the scene. It hits theaters May 25, 2012.

3 out of 5 Stars