Director: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris and Emma Roberts
Creating an emotional main character that is also complex and challenging, and who isn’t afraid to go after what they want while also protecting the ones they love, isn’t the easiest task for a filmmaker. When that character is also coping with a mental illness, the task is even harder. But writer Dustin Lance Black successfully did just that with the lead title character in his directorial debut, the new drama ‘Virginia.’ While Virginia heavily relies on her son to take care of her, she also realizes that she needs to give him a better life, away from the small town they’ve lived in their whole lives.
‘Virginia’ follows the title character (played by Jennifer Connelly), a single mother suffering from schizophrenia, who’s struggling to raise her teenage son, Emmett (portrayed by Harrison Gilbertson). While she’s determined to leave her small southern town to move to San Fransisco to be with her sister, Virginia is still carrying on a long time affair with Mormon Sheriff Richard Tipton (played by Ed Harris). Their relationship and future are questioned when Richard decides to run for public office. Due his lasting feelings for Virginia, Richard tries to stop his daughter, Jessie (portrayed by Emma Roberts), from starting a relationship with Emmett. Everyone in the town tries to keep their lives together while keeping their secrets hidden.
Black created an emotionally complex character in Virginia, whose mental and psychological shortcomings hinder her independence, but still allow her to strive to achieve her goals and dreams. Through the filmmaker and Connelly’s extensive research into mental illness before they began shooting ‘Virginia,’ they created a captivating woman who knows what she wants in life, including building a financially secure and loving life for her son. While she’s unsure how, and emotionally and financially unable, to make the move to California, she’s determined to make a promising life for him, including finding someone who could love him the way he’s loved her his entire life.
The co-dependent relationship between Virginia and Emmett is an important element to the story; it realistically shows the reversal of the traditional parent-child roles when a parent is suffering from a mental illness. The mother and her son have an enthralling relationship in the fact that as Virgina’s mental health begins to deteriorate, Emmett comes to mature rather quickly. As Emmett gets a job after Virginia loses her, he has to support her, both physically and emotionally, and wants to do whatever he can to protect her. Virginia surprisingly matures herself to some degree, as she realizes that her illness is just preventing Emmett from living his own life; Virginia is happy to let him start a relationship with Jessie, as she makes him happy.
Virginia also has a multifaceted relationship with Richard that’s spanned 17 years. While the relationship may only appear sexual to the other characters in the film, as Virginia was a fun-loving, naive girl when they first met, he comes to truly care for her. She learns to trust him, as he appreciates her unconventional ways and her quirky personality. Richard sets out to protect Virginia, even though he can’t fully commit to her and is quick to turn on others who don’t listen to him.
Much like their parents, Emmett and Jessie also want to enjoy their present lives, even if their actions go against the Tipton’s Morman religious beliefs. They refreshingly found love and solace with each other, and can truly be themselves, as they learn to trust someone besides their parents. The teens’ relationship not only helps them learn about themselves, but also helps teach Virginia that it’s time to let Emmett live his own life. Virginia makes the ultimate sacrifice by letting her son leave, proving that on some level, she is a good mother.
‘Virginia’ successfully differentiates itself from other films focusing on mental illness, as it offers compelling insight into the true emotions a woman struggling to deal with her life is feeling. Virginia relies on those in her life, including Emmett and Richard, to care for her, and initially has a hard time when she realizes their relationships are rapidly changing. But she has the courage to realize when it’s best to let them move on, and resiliently finds a way to adjust as well.
Written by: Karen Benardello