Synopsis: A struggling inner-city mother sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future – and that of thousands like him.
Stars: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Adina Porter, Amirah Vann
Director: R.J. Daniel Hanna
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Growing up, the hardest subject for me to master was math. It took a while to get the basics but after I did, it was easy to spot the patterns once I figured out the formulas. It all boils down to a simple equation that, no matter the length or contributing factors, follows a strict guideline without deviation. It allows for confidence in solution and outcome and, often, predictability from the start. You can apply the same algebraic analogy to a movie like Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by real life events which runs down a checklist of oft-used devices to come up with an expected, if only occasionally stirring, resolution. It may not be incredibly thought-provoking filmmaking, but it does have a certain passing charm.
In 2003, Virginia Walden Ford (Uzo Aduba) was a single-mother raising a 15-year-old son in Washington D.C. who we first meet in the principal’s office at her son’s inner-city public school. Finding out James (Niles Fitch, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has been skipping school without her knowledge, she imparts on him the importance of applying himself only to wind up back in the office a short time later when James is caught bullying another student, though we know he’s only guilty by unfortunate association. Frustrated by the lack of support from the administration and afraid of seeing her son withdraw further into a troubled life she enrolls him at a nearby private school and takes on an extra janitorial job for Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis, If Beale Street Could Talk), a congressional representative, in order to pay the high tuition fee.
As she gets to know Lorraine, Virginia educates herself on a flawed structure that funnels money into the public school system when it could be used to provide scholarships/vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. Wanting that for her son, she attempts to get Lorraine on board, only to find the helpful ear she thought she had might already be bought and paid for by a town full of lobbyists. Organizing a grassroots campaign, Virginia pounds the pavement and stirs a community with similar interest for their sons and daughters, putting a target on her back along the way. When she joins with a popular but eccentric congressman (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) she enters the big leagues and her personal life becomes fair game used by the opposition to discredit her platform.
As a feature film, Miss Virginia plays a little light in the dramatic heft department. Without any strong names to ground the picture it has the feel of a made for television movie that found its way into your local theater. That’s not a dig on the actors in any way because the performances across the board are delivered with the exact amount of Serious Importance (save for Vanessa Williams doing her umpteenth catty arched eyebrow role) but watching the film from home I get the impression it played better than it would on a screen 50 times as large. There’s not a lot of flair to R.J. Daniel Hanna’s direction and certainly not to Erin O’Connor’s so-so script. O’Connor seems to be ticking off boxes in a how-to book for screenwriters with these types of films, including an unfortunate late-breaking incident meant to create an additional dramatic push forward for the community that only serves to remind audiences how derivative a turn the movie is willing to take.
I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for Aduba to appear in such a prominent role in a movie. An Emmy-winning breakout star on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Aduba has been busy with that show for the last several years but with that series wrapped I look forward to seeing her more in roles that give her a chance to show a different side. While she isn’t always successful in transitioning her internal feelings to the external, you can see her working through Virginia’s incredulity with a system that seems designed to see her fail and her determination to prevail shining through. With his hair looking as crazy as his accent sounds, Modine is quirky but never dull as Virginia’s Capital Hill insider and the two work well together. Modine is making some interesting choices here, I’m not sure it totally works, but I liked it whenever he was onscreen with Aduba. A special shout-out to Amirah Vann (And So It Goes) as a woman in Virginia’s neighborhood that joins her cause, bringing some vitality to the movie when it starts to sag.
Not being familiar with Virginia Walden Ford or the landmark D.C. legislation she had a hand in securing before seeing Miss Virginia, I’m glad this one came my way. It’s pleasantly light in the political area, steering clear of the stumping and denser legal maneuvering in favor of a more personal engagement narrative. Though generic in tone, it’s big in spirit and intention. I wouldn’t make it a priority to catch this one in theaters, though do add it to your streaming queue when it shows up there shortly.