Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has fashioned a quirky melodrama steeped in Southern accents and Mormonism with Virginia, a well-constructed -- if not altogether convincing -- tale of a teenager trying to escape from the bad influences that surround him.
Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) has an unstable home life thanks to his schizophrenic mother Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), who is doing her best to raise him while carrying on a lengthy affair with the devoutly Mormon Sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), whose penchant for S/M play has led him to stray from his wife (Amy Madigan). Chain-smoking Virginia also suffers from a severe lung disease, but she refuses to get any help for it. Instead, she convinces herself that her physical problems stem from a pregnancy due to her dalliances with the sheriff, who has recently ended their regular visits because he's running for a seat in the state senate. Complicating young Emmett's life further is the fact that he has fallen in love with Jessie Tipton (Emma Roberts), the sheriff's daughter, and the lawman is willing to do anything in his power to keep the two apart.
As a screenwriter, Black does an expert job of establishing the intricate relationships between not only the main characters, but a number of supporting characters -- like Emmett's obese, hemophiliac best friend and a cross-dressing local amusement-park operator -- who all have idiosyncrasies that stick in our minds. Though the characters are often taciturn, Black fills the movie with voice-overs written in a highly literate and stylized Southern patois that feels like a combination of William Faulkner, S.E. Hinton, and Sissy Spacek's clueless ramblings from Badlands. That the film works as well as it does is a testament to his skill as a storyteller.
While the plot keeps us guessing, the movie never quite takes hold of our imagination -- perhaps because the situation and the characters are so outlandish. Though we want to see the sheriff get his comeuppance, and ponder how loony the increasingly unstable Virginia will become, it's difficult to actually care about these characters. The movie engages your brain, but not your heart, since it doesn't allow the characters to become histrionic, not even when their actions reek of soap-opera extremes. The picture straddles the line between realism and over-the-top melodrama, and by never fully committing to either, it's difficult for the audience to react.
It's certainly not the fault of the actors. Ed Harris nails the repressed lawman trying to keep his secrets hidden, Gilbertson balances toughness and naïve vulnerability, and Connelly deserves credit for playing way outside her comfort zone, even though her character's inherent trashiness seems more studied than lived-in. That kind of sums up both the appeal and the limits of Virginia as a movie: It's easy to admire the craft and skill, but it never seems real enough -- or theatrical enough -- to connect on a deeper level.