We all love a good, inspirational, true-life story don’t we? Especially one in which seemingly insurmountable odds are faced and conquered. If it’s an underdog story and someone sticks it to the man in some way, all the better. Surely then, Miss Virginia should tick all the boxes of a good biopic? A mother fighting for her son’s future against the edifice of American politics in a way that deals with the perennial issues of race and class can’t possibly fail. Sometimes though, the message dominates and the cinematic elements are neglected. And sometimes, even that message is a bit murkier and darker than it appears at first glance. That is unfortunately the case with this over-simplified, one-sided and patronising political drama.
Single mum Virginia Walden (Uzo Aduba) is hauled into the local high school attended – at least nominally – by her wayward son James (Niles Fitch). James is bright and artistic, but is being swallowed up in a broken school system, with only the illicit dollars of the local drug trade offering any prospect. Determined to get him reengaged with his education, Virginia briefly gets him enrolled in a private school, but can’t keep up the payments and her son is soon back where he started. Through a cleaning job at the office of congress in Washington, she eventually meets savvy congressman Clifford Williams (Matthew Modine) and they team up to try and push through a bill of private tuition vouchers to help kids like her son.
To say Miss Virginia paints in broad strokes would be an understatement. There isn’t a political point that isn’t hammered home, an opponent that isn’t pure careerist caricature, a stirring moment not punctuated with a musical choice employed as a blunt emotional cudgel, or a local dealer painted as a cartoon villain. It all begins to reek of propaganda, and sure enough it turns out it is the first film from right-wing Motion Picture Institute, which aims to, “entertain, inspire, and educate audiences with captivating stories about human freedom.” A biopic, especially a political one, is always likely to simplify or gloss over some aspects of its subject, but Hanna’s film is particularly egregious.
The subject of the ‘school voucher’ is not particularly interesting in and of itself, so Hanna tells Virginia’s story in the most basic, melodramatic and TV-movie manner possible. It glosses over the reasonable objection to the voucher system that it continues to neglect the normal student in favour of granting golden tickets to the private Wonka factory for a select few. Anyone who voices that opinion is clearly villainous and dismissed by the righteously impassioned Virginia, or the glibly scathing Williams. This isn’t helped by a contemptible script that panders to base calls to national pride. ‘This is America. This is the land of opportunity,’ chokes Virginia tearfully at one pointy, choosing to blithely ignore that the entire narrative of the film undermines that very myth.
There are at least a couple of decent performances. Aduba is adept at playing the political crusader, as she proved to better effect as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America. The problem here is that Virginia’s political naivety renders her a fairly passive character for long stretches, even reducing her to watching the climactic ballot from behind bars. This leaves Modine’s Williams to claim the victory lap – something of misstep for a film that centres black working-class experience. Modine himself is clearly having a good time as an unlikely hero in the form of a slippery politician. The Full Metal Jacket star has aged interestingly into his sixties, now looking a bit like David Byrne‘s rumpled Republican brother, and a more balanced and incisive film would make more of the interesting repositioning of his cynical, serpentine politicking into an asset. Instead it just makes Williams look like a case of a powerful, white saviour – one which incidentally paints black politicians and community figures as Uncle Toms upholding a racist status quo.
A film so immersed in the grubby, internecine machinations of US state politics is unlikely to cause much of a stir here, and Miss Virginia certainly doesn’t deserve the attention. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is nigh on geological, so in 2020 there’s some blackly ironic mileage in a line such as ‘I’m not shutting down a peaceful protest… This is America,’ delivered with deathly earnestness. It is also good to see the excellent Aduba in a starring role, given that even in Mrs. America she was side-lined in the closing stretches. She however deserves a lot better than this flat, basic and cynical vehicle.
Available On-demand from Mon 05 Oct 2020