Filmmaker Dustin Lance Black attracts an impressive cast including Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris and Emma Roberts for this dysfunctional family drama inspired by his own upbringing. What's Wrong With Virginia, a coming of age tale about a teenage boy coming to terms with his mentally ill mother, has impressive technical polish for a sophomore feature. More importantly, Black creates a flamboyant, colorful lead role for Connelly, one certain to gain notice at awards time. While What's Wrong With Virginia fails to match the quality of Black's scripts for the cable series Big Love or his Oscar winning screenplay for Gus Van Sant's Milk, the cast (specifically Connelly and Harris) make the story come alive. Specialty audiences often embrace dysfunctional family tales of this variety and What's Wrong With Virginia certainly falls into that category. After making its premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, What's Wrong With Virginia remains available for acquisition from CAA. Its mixed reviews aside, the TicTock Studios, Killer Films and CrabCake Entertainment production can be a high profile, profitable release for a specialty distributor who wants to be in the Dustin Lance Black business.
Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) lives in an oceanfront tourist town with her teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) and barely makes ends meet. Virginia's private life revolves around her married boyfriend, the conservative Sheriff Tipton (Ed Harris). Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) complicates matters by dating Tipton's daughter (Emma Roberts) and planning his escape from the conservative resort town. But Virginia grows ill and mentally unstable, and soon her relationship with Tipton may not be enough to save her.
Connelly looks stunning in designer Danny Glicker's colorful costumes and Black wisely keeps the spotlight on her throughout the film. Ed Harris plays Sheriff Tipton as rock solid to the point of rigidity, except for when he's with Virginia in the bedroom. Black draws Harris' character in broad strokes, making Tipton a conservative Mormon who happens to enjoy kinky sex with his mistress. Still, Harris remains grounded and keeps Tipton from becoming a farce.
With regards to the newcomers, Harrison Gilbertson is affable as the teen aching to leave home, but lacks the presence needed to match up with Connelly and Harris. Emma Roberts comes off better as Emmett's girlfriend and Tipton's daughter. Roberts keeps her character clichés free, a welcome change of pace from the characters around her.
What's Wrong With Virginia is a story drawn from Black's childhood in a conservative Mormon household. Perhaps the story hits too close to home in order for him to tell it with the clarity and force he's demonstrated in his other scripts.
What Black does accomplish perfectly is the technical side of moviemaking.
Black is clearly inspired by the films of Todd Haynes and Douglas Sirk and he and production designer Laura Fox make beautiful use of the film's Michigan lakefront locations.
Cameraman Eric Alan Edwards brings a summery sparkle to the movie and editor John David Allen maintains a swift storytelling pace from start to finish.
Granted Black only has himself to blame for the film's storytelling shortcomings and his chance to jump-start a directing career equal to his screenwriting-for-hire acclaim. Still, there's much to admire in What's Wrong With Virginia and plenty of reason to see a bright future for Black in the director's chair.
Contact: CAA (424) 288-2000 ask for Dina Kuperstock's office
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Emma Roberts, Harrison Gilbertson, Amy Madigan
Director/Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black
Producers: Scott J. Brooks, Hopwood DePree, Christine Vachon
Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Running Time: 116 min