The controversial issue of private school vouchers receives shallow treatment in Miss Virginia, R. J. Daniel Hanna’s true-life drama about a single mother turned activist. Starring Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) as Virginia Walden Ford, whose hard-working efforts contributed to the passage of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program providing scholarships to low-income children for private schools, the pic proves stronger on uplifting, albeit predictable, drama than dealing with the complexities of its subject matter.
Set in 2003, the story begins with Virginia struggling to raise her 15-year-old son James (Niles Fitch, displaying the same soulfulness here that he does as the young Randall on NBC’s This Is Us) in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighborhood. James is having severe problems at the public school he attends, including frequently playing hooky because of his constant harassment by bullies. When he’s forced to participate in the humiliation of a fellow student, he’s the only one caught and is threatened with expulsion. This prompts Virginia to enroll him at an excellent private school, although to cover the expensive tuition she’s forced to take a job as a janitor at the office of a local congresswoman (Aunjanue Ellis, The Help).
At first, Virginia thinks she’s found a sympathetic ear in her new employer, who even invites her to ask a prepared question about the issue at a local town hall meeting. But when Virginia instead takes the opportunity to tell her own story and make a dramatic appeal for a scholarship program, she gets fired. She then approaches wealthy congressman Cliff Williams (Matthew Modine) to try to solicit his support, only to be rebuffed because of his urgent need to get to his golf game.
Undeterred, Virginia forms a grassroots organization and begins collecting signatures for a petition. She soon becomes a minor celebrity, but when she goes on a local talk show to make her case the host (Vanessa Williams) sandbags her and attacks her personally. It’s only when she finally gets Williams on her side that she begins to become hopeful about winning the political battle, even as her son falls under the sway of a local drug dealer and begins surreptitiously working for him.
There’s very little that’s not predictable in the screenplay by Erin O’Connor, which tends to sacrifice nuance in favor of melodrama. The film also very much simplifies the educational issues it addresses, providing scant details and relying wholly on emotional arguments. Nonetheless, Miss Virginia exerts a strong pull at times, thanks largely to Aduba’s superb performance. Powerfully conveying Virginia’s fierce determination to make her life better for her son, the actress delivers a restrained but movingly emotive turn that keeps us rooting for her character from first moment to last.
Modine, adopting a rather bizarre upper-crust accent, is equally terrific playing an eccentrically quirky figure who brings some much-needed comic relief to the proceedings. Yes, his congressman wants to change the system and bring financial relief to low-income parents desperate for good educations for their children. But what really turns him on is the gamesmanship. Supremely confident in his legislative skills, his sheer delight in his political machinations proves highly entertaining, and even if the scene depicting the final cliffhanger vote feels utterly absurd, Modine makes it work anyway thanks to his charm and charisma. His enjoyably playful performance helps prevent Miss Virginia from feeling entirely like an issue-of-the-week television movie.
Production company: Moving Picture Institute
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Aunjanue Ellis, Niles Fitch, Nadji Jeter, Vanessa Williams, Michael Beasley
Director: R.J. Daniel Hanna
Screenwriter: Erin O’Connor
Producers: Maurice Black, M. Elizabeth Hughes, Erin O’Connor, Stacey Parks, Rob Pfaltzgraff
Executive producers: Virginia Walden Ford, Nick Reid
Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber
Production designer: Grace Alie
Editors: Sally Bergom, Brian Scofield
Composer: Laura Karpman
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Casting: Aisha Coley