Beloit International Film Festival: “Virginia Minnesota” is an engaging comedy-drama from next door

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Take a Wendigo, a wisecracking robot and a few old secrets, and you might just have the makings of a superior comedy-drama.

Or Superior comedy-drama.

“Virginia Minnesota,” which plays Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival (its second-ever screening after premiering at Cinequest earlier in the week) is an engaging movie from writer-director Daniel Stine that takes place in the title town, of course, as well as on the shores of Lake Superior in Grand Marais. A more welcoming invitation for the region is hard to imagine being filmed.

Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) is a travel blogger who tours the country with an unlikely companion, a “robot” (really just a rolling suitcase with a Siri-type device attached). But her travels are taking her back to Minnesota, to the reform school she was once placed in as a girl.

The woman who ran the home has died, and Lyle and several of her classmates have returned home for the reading of the will and to reconnect. (Stine has a small role as the woman’s son.) The visit stirs up memories, not all of them pleasant. Honestly, the repartee between the women is so engaging that I would have been happy to just keep the movie there and let the wine flow.

But one woman is absent – Addison (Aurora Perrineau), the wild child of the bunch, a free spirit and loose cannon who hops from tourist job to tourist job. Lyle is sent to go fetch her, and as the two old friends take a meandering road trip back, dig deeper into the buried secrets that have kept them apart since childhood. The journey gets progressively more and more zany, including an apparent run-in with a Wendigo (although Addison’s mother may be more ferocious).

Tone is a tricky thing to manage, and “Virginia Minnesota” sometimes swerves over the lines. Sometimes the drama veers into sentimentality and pathos. Sometimes the jokes feel too silly and sitcommy for such a character-driven film. (On the other hand, the robot, voiced by Aurora’s father, “Lost” actor Harold Perrineau, is the silliest running joke of all, but still had me chuckling throughout.)

But the chemistry between the female-led cast is so strong that it carries the film over any narrative bumps. The film also has unusually tight and sharp editing for such a low-budget indie, the shots capturing the idiosyncratic beauty of the region and giving the film a snappy rhythm.

“Virginia Minnesota” has its premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Beloit International Film Festival with an encore screening at 5 p.m. Sunday. For locations, tickets, and other information about the festival, visit beloitfilmfest.org.

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