Sweet Virginia Review
Sweet Virginia (2017) Film Review from the 16th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Jamie M. Dagg and starring Jon Bernthal, Imogen Poots, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Abrahamson, Odessa Young, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Darcy Laurie, and Scott A. McGillivray.
Sweet Virginia was good for what it was – a jarring interruption of lives-in-progress, and a spiral towards a forced confrontation – but it could have been so much better for what it lacked: a set-up. Jamie Dagg’s direction was heavy on mood & atmosphere, and the plot maintained a useful level of momentum; but the film came across as more of a spectacle, than experience. You may enjoy watching what unfolds, but only if you don’t need to know all that much about who it happens to.
The film focused almost entirely on matters as they unfolded, with only one character being developed beyond that. Much of the payoff came from us being allowed to see enough of the drop, to concern ourselves with where (and how) everyone would land – giving the audience reason to invest in fate of various characters – and a somewhat tidy wrap up of various threads. Without much in the way of backstory, however, there was a heavy dependence on inference & allusion.
For one thing, Sweet Virginia was not set in the Virginias. The title was one part nostalgia, one part refuge, in regards to what the actual setting meant to certain characters. The conflict began when small town matters were violently disrupted by an outsider; the actual story began with a local having invited that disruption into the setting; and it all revolved around a transplant, running the one establishment that caters to outsiders.
This was not a twist-and-turns kind of tale. If anything, much of its major moments were heavily telegraphed (note: menacing strangers knowing your name should be cause for raised alarm, and Mauser rifles are very reliable). Sweet Virginia was a straight-up Morality Play, carried by cause-and-effect. What fueled it, however, was how its characters reacted to the Murphy’s Law domino effect, as it widened. In that respect, Sweet Virginia reminded me of the original Fargo; but only in terms of story – not depth or tone.
So the writing was on the wall, once the plot motivator became clear. Because Sweet Virginia was character driven, however, that didn’t matter. What did matter, was that for all the presence these characters brought to the screen, there really wasn’t that much in the way of character development.
I won’t go into her specific role, but Imogen Poots was almost typecast for it. Given just how well she plays this type of role, however, it would be hard to fault the casting. Sure, William H. Macy did better, in pretty much the same role; but he doesn’t do damsel-in-distress – self-inflicted, or otherwise.
Being the manager of a motel pretty much summed up the role of Sam (Jon Bernthal). As both the nostalgic & refugee, alluded to by the title, Sam seemed to be in the habit of managing the troubles of his adopted neighbors. Regardless of the role, Jon Bernthal is generally regarded as a bad-ass (not action hero – bad-ass). This perception may have been exploited, for this role, as Sam was presented as a man more willing than able. One minor conflict, within the larger story, was set up seemingly to underscore that very point, once the expected confrontation came to pass. That justified the walk-on role of some recognizable actors; but, for the most part, it seemed the entire cast served only to provide context to Sam’s story. That would be something I’d accept, if not for just how compelling some of these characters were, in such relatively underdeveloped roles.
No one displayed more subtext to character than the outsider, Elwood (Christopher Abbott). His every seemingly random comment, outburst, or reaction came across as informed by a history of personal experiences/ conditions. Between his semi-random way of self-expression, his sociopathic tendencies, and his impulsively violent aversion to eye-contact, a case could be made for autism. As if to encapsulate my singular gripe with this narrative, there was a brief scene of Elwood attempting to contact his mother. The scene served to add fuel to his fire, but struck me as the single biggest missed opportunity to peek under this runaway car’s hood. Whether a product of nature, nurture, or both, Elwood – like most everyone else in this story – was left to be taken as is.
Sweet Virginia was a story-in-progress, populated by characters introduced to us in mid-stride. I might be tempted to compare it to the Bible starting with a conversation between Eve & the Serpent – none of that Genesis/ Adam/ Adam’s rib stuff – but that would be a bit much; so I won’t. If I were to, though, I’d point out that the Garden of Eden parable did tell a compelling story – even without its beginning – but having a sense for what’s missing does tend to nag at you, after the fact. Desperation was an almost universal theme to the film; but even when that desperation was well conveyed, as a plot driver, not knowing anything about its multiple sources undermined the whole exercise.
Context is everything; and even though Sweet Virginia‘s story stood well, on its own, some more backstory would have likely enriched that story with just such context.
The backstory we did get was capped with a lingering flashback; bringing the moody microcosm theme to a full circle, by framing the end of Sam’s story with its beginning. On its own: a nice touch; but to me, it only left me wondering why no one else got this treatment. This, in turn, left me wondering if Sam’s story was really that deserving of being the only one to get this treatment.
Sometimes the only thing worse than a bad ending, is a good ending you know could have been better. I won’t say that applies here; but the bothersome question did take away from the experience.
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