While it might not rival the story of a small-town boy of uncertain parentage whose schizophrenic mother is involved in an S&M relationship with a married Mormon sheriff, Dustin Lance Black’s What’s Wrong With Virginia has a tangled history of its own. The film, his fourth feature as a director, was shown not long after Black won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was savaged by some and forgotten by most. Taking his critics to heart, Black withdrew the film, recut it, and changed the title to boot, shortening it to the inoffensive Virginia.
In a way, it’s a shame, since all Black succeeded in doing was to turn what was, by all accounts, a memorable mess of a movie into a forgettable, somewhat tidier mess. Having Jennifer Connelly, a bottle-blonde single mom destabilized by a lifetime of mental illness and a recent lung cancer diagnosis, narrate the film by relaying her story to an imaginary friend is merely embarrassing. But Black went even further in the original version, throwing in a parallel voiceover, this one delivered by Connelly’s son, Harrison Gilbertson, to the specter of a professional race-car driver he believes to be his father. Sadly, NASCAR dad went by the board in the recut, leaving a misshapen movie that’s not personal enough to qualify as a film maudit.
Connelly invests her part with passion and, more importantly, credibility, grounding Black’s wackier notions, like her decision to convert her cancer into a phantom pregnancy and blackmail the sheriff—who’s in the midst of a campaign for state senate—for child support. But once bank robberies and gorilla masks work their way into the mix, no amount of Oscar-winning theatrics can bring Virginia back down to earth. Black seems to be aiming for some sort of loopy fantasia, a tragic fable about struggling with difference in the small-town South, but he’s got more half-finished ideas than he can handle.