With a title that sounds torn from the cover of a trashy pulp novel and a setting muggy enough to make Tennessee Williams sweat, “What’s Wrong With Virginia” should have been a shoo-in to the camp canon. Instead, Dustin Lance Black’s fourth feature (his first since getting his “Milk” Oscar) is more schizophrenic than its titular nutcase, a scattershot Southern melodrama that can’t decide what it’s supposed to be. That conflicted identity — a mix of cliched small-town critique and larger-than-life mommy worship — will make it challenging to interest auds in the problematic “Virginia,” sustained only by Jennifer Connelly’s empathetic perf.
Set in Oceana, a fictional Virginia beachside community, the film romanticizes writer-director Black’s own Southern upbringing through the story of big-city-bound dreamer Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) who leaves behind his unwell mother (Jennifer Connelly) and controlling Mormon father figure (Ed Harris) so that he can pursue his true potential. The film serves as a prequel of sorts to Black’s debut, “The Journey of Jared Price,” about a corn-fed kid who arrives in Los Angeles wanting to make movies and discovers his homosexuality in the process — the sort of potential the writer-director doesn’t imagine possible in a straightjacketed small town like Oceana.
The title, a pun, reps the duality of the situation: The local busybodies can’t understand what’s wrong with Connelly’s chain-smoking Virginia, while their petty hypocrisies and prejudices just go to show all that’s wrong with the state. For Black, the problem with Oceana is that it’s not San Francisco or any of the other progressive meccas where he believes a kid in Emmett’s shoes would have a real chance in life.
So the film plays like one long jailbreak, with freedom being anywhere but here. After putting an ironic, white-trash twist on the “Far From Heaven”-style opening credits (there’s an old mattress in the driveway of that otherwise perfect suburban home — take that, Douglas Sirk!), Black begins his quasi-retro story at the end, with Sheriff Richard Tipton (Harris) carrying Virginia out to a waiting squad car, where she deliriously spills her story to an imaginary confidant (Barry Shabaka Henley). A mile or so down the road, her son makes a break for it, sharing his story with an imaginary companion of his own, race car driver Ward Burton (playing himself), whom he irrationally believes to be his father.
Seems there’s a question of paternity, since Tipton’s been cheating on his Mormon wife (a sad, soulful Amy Madigan) with Virginia for years, and Emmett’s in love with Tipton’s daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts); it just wouldn’t be right if Emmett and Jessie turned out to be half-siblings — a reasonable theory Emmett uses high-school genetics to disprove as the narrative shifts back into the past. With his enigmatic opening, Black implies that some sort of big crime awaits his characters, but even the promise of fireworks isn’t enough to sustain the rat’s nest of a plot that follows (involving pregnancy scares, S&M secrets and history’s most amateur bank robbery).
Spinning colorful caricatures, Black populates Oceana with all kinds of weirdos, from fruity Ferris wheel owner Max (Toby Jones) to Emmett’s overweight and under-bright best friend Dale (Paul Walter Hauser). But none holds a candle to foaming-at-the-mouth Sheriff Tipton: His raving sexual appetite can only be satisfied by Virginia, even if it threatens to undermine his bid for state Senate.
Now, some might argue that Virginia’s not a good mother, and that seems to be exactly the point Black and his leading lady aim to disprove. Deep down, Virginia is willing to do anything for her son’s happiness, and that kind of spirit calls for a larger-than-life performance, but Connelly plays it down to earth, digging deep to find the humanity in this troubled character. As her son, newcomer Gilbertson comes across far more naturalistic, a dime-store James Dean waiting for his life to begin.
For all that’s wrong with “Virginia,” from Black’s convoluted script to his overreaching aesthetic, it must be said that the guy is making some of the most personal movies in Hollywood. “Virginia” shows the director at his most autobiographical (some might say narcissistic). The production values are leagues beyond “Jared Price,” but still suggest a director trying to find his footing, and though Black’s potentially empowering message is buried too deep amid potboiler pastiche to resonate properly, there’s still enough promise in the way he works with actors and the semi-surreal tone he sustains to excite about future endeavors.