The title character of "Virginia" is charming, free-spirited and schizophrenic traits she shares with this decidedly odd drama, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ("Milk").
Virginia (played by Jennifer Connelly) is a mentally unstable woman in a seaside town in the state of Virginia, who has carried on a years-long affair with Sheriff Richard Tipton (Ed Harris), who's running for the state Senate based on his law-and-order record and his rectitude as a leader in the local Mormon ward. Virginia's the only one who knows about the sex toys and bondage gear Sheriff Tipton receives from a mail-order company and hides in his basement office.
Virginia and Tipton have something else in common: Each is parent to a teenager. And when Virginia's son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), starts hanging out with the sheriff's daughter, Jesse (Emma Roberts) and talks about converting to Mormonism so they can marry in the temple Sheriff Tipton starts getting nervous.
If you think you know where Black is going with this, you're in for a surprise, and perhaps a disappointment.
Black splits the story in two. Part of the movie is a chronicle of Virginia's deteriorating mental state, as she ignores a social worker (Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson) who tells her she must treat her lung disease and instead convinces herself she's pregnant with Sheriff Tipton's baby. The other half is a parable of hypocrisy, as Tipton tries to maintain the wall between his public piety and his private perversions, even with Virginia's loose talk getting the attention of the stalwart Mrs. Tipton (Amy Madigan, Harris' real-life wife).
The movie's split personality extends to the narration which is traded off between Virginia and Emmett, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whose story this is.
Black, who was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, includes a fair amount of Mormon minutiae in the story (including a few references to "magic underwear") that will have viewers either wincing or laughing. It's unfair to say Black equates Tipton's Mormon belief with Virginia's mental delusions but the line between the two may be blurrier than some will find comfortable.
Alas, such subtlety is occasionally lost amid everything else Black has stuffed in his Southern Gothic tale including moments of manic comedy at an amusement park, an over-the-top performance by Connelly and an ending that jumps the rails. "Virginia" is often bewildering, sometimes beguiling, but never boring.
Faith, hypocrisy and delusion collide in this uneven Southern Gothic tale.
Where •Tower Theatre.
When •Opens Friday, June 1.
Rating •Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Running time • 110 minutes.
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