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Dustin Lance Black paved a pretty golden road for himself the moment he met up with Gus Van Sant. Black's first screenplay, Milk, snagged him an Oscar, and now his directorial debut What's Wrong With Virginia comes with Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris in the lead roles and, of course, Van Sant as an executive producer. But while he kept it simple and let the performances and the story speak for itself in Milk, Black comes to Virginia armed with dozens of ideas and pastiches from other films, none of which fit comfortably into this small-town melodrama.
Like Milk, though, Virginia is propped up by a strong central performance, with Connelly doing some of her best work in years as the unstable-verging-on-totally-nuts Virginia. Living in a beach town and raising her teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) on her own. He's strongly suspected all his life that his father is local sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), who has carried on an affair with Virginia for decades, and Emmett's hunt for answers gets more urgent when he falls for Tipton's daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts). Meanwhile Virginia continues losing it, faking a pregnancy and ignoring what appears to be lung cancer and attempting to rob the local bank-- and that's without even getting into her newfound interest in becoming a proper Mormon.
The movie is all over the place in every imaginable way, set in some modern-day American pastiche of the 50s as translated by David Lynch and Todd Haynes, vacillating wildly from camp to melodrama to harsh satire and back again, and relying on us to stay grounded in the whole thing by Gilbertson's Emmett, who seems like a nice kid and all, but sure doesn't have the strength to carry a movie on his shoulders. Both Emmett and Virginia narrate the story as flashbacks, and while Virginia's narration is far more unreliable, she's the only one you want to hear from. Wearing bleached blonde hair and a series of billowy dresses, Connelly has rarely looked more fragile or dangerous; like Virginia she's adrift in a world that doesn't quite appreciate her, and just as you root for Virginia to pull it together and leave town, you root for Connelly to track down a better movie.
With talent like Toby Jones, Carrie Preston and Amy Madigan struggling mightily to get noticed amid the din, Virginia starts to feel manic well before the ending attempts to mix violence and comedy with distasteful results. The film has enough big names attached to probably attract some buyer interest, and there are snippets of good things here-- Connelly's performance, cinematography by Eric Alan Edwards, music by Nick Urata-- that are worth championing for those so inclined. I felt mostly that it was an early draft for something that could potentially have great power with a little more focus.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.