Virginia is a quietly absorbing film written and directed by Dustin Lance Black (Milk). It features a great cast, including Jennifer Connelly, Ed Burns, Emma Roberts, Amy Madigan, Toby Jones and Yeardley Smith. Newcomer Harrison Gilbertson makes an excellent impression as Emmett, the loyal son of Connelly’s mentally unbalanced Virginia.
Set in a Southern town, (where people have widely different accents), the world of Virginia a tangle of oppressive religions, hypocrisy and judgement. Virginia is known about town for having suffered a mental breakdown as a child, having a stint in an institution, and then taking in a series of lovers, one of whom left her with Emmett. Her current affair with the town’s married, Mormon police sheriff, Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), is well known to both Emmett and Tipton’s daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts).
The opening credits are accompanied by sweet music and illustrations of story-book cottages and fields, belying the warped scenarios that follow. The movie wobbles uncertainly into comedy a few times, but it’s hard to really laugh because of the sadness behind the whole situation. Harris plays Tipton well as the perfect, total package hypocrite: a Mormon living such a double life that he orders in sex toys and leather outfits to try out with Virginia, neither of them bothering to hide it even while Emmett is at home. He even has the gall to run for the state senate, with that kind of skeleton in his closet. He tells Virginia his own skewered version of what heaven is like, and she longs to become saved by some religion, any religion.
To make things more complicated, Emmett is in love with Jessie, who is trying to hold onto her parents’ faith despite being aware of her father’s affair and watching her mother (Amy Madigan) sadly trying to regain his attention. There is a heartbreaking scene where a yellow dress Mrs. Tipton has been making to try and please him, gets stained, and she cries out pathetically. Of course Emmett is not even allowed to make out with Jesse unless he becomes a Mormon; there’s a scene where they argue about it and she tells him, “My Jesus is better than your Jesus,” and storms off.
Meanwhile, delusional Victoria ignores her diagnosis with lung cancer, and decides instead that she is pregnant with the sheriff’s baby. She starts wandering around town with clothes stuffed under her dress, as if no one would wonder how she’d gotten that big overnight. She drives Emmett and Jessie to Atlantic City so they can get married in secret, and it seems like the worst decision the two teens could make, until Virginia has a breakdown there and Emmett reveals how amazing he is, as her loyal, protective son. He tells her, “I love you, you’re just too messed up to know it right now.” There are some fantastic moments where he stands up to the sheriff too, that kept me rooting for him.
Then the governor decides to visit their town just around the time that Tipton’s affair with Virginia is leaked, and Emmett decides to do something drastic in order to get real money to get his little family out of there. The film takes a dark turn suddenly, but it fools you; despite the revelation that an opening scene was not what it seemed, things turn out much better than it seems they possibly could. Jessie’s mother even gets some major revenge, although we don’t really get to see it, which is a bummer.
The film leaves you with the uncertain hope that Emmett and Jessie will be all right in the end, and that despite all her mistakes, Virginia has managed to do one thing right. Virginia is in select theaters now.
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