by David Cornelius
I would like to say that I watched “Virgin” due to some desire for intellectual cinema, that I was interested in a film with multiple themes on gender roles, sexuality, abuse, and oppression. But the sad truth is, I’ve been crushing on Elisabeth Moss for quite some time now and just wanted the chance to see her in anything.It turns out that the crush paid off, as “Virgin” is indeed a fine movie. Unfocused, perhaps, meandering at times, but overall a well-acted, well-told story with a handful of impressive emotional gut punches.
"Rape, drugs, religion... light and breezy this ain't."
Moss stars as Jessie, the rebel daughter in a family of fundamentalists. Her sister (Stephanie Gatschet) is a star athlete and ace student; Jessie would wish to be those things, but her role of Bad Girl, sweet talking a stranger into buying her some Jack, keeps her from such self-improvement. Although while she’s Bad, she’s not bad, as we learn when she tries to congratulate her sister upon winning a race. The sister ignores her, however, and between this and the scenes of her strictly religious parents, we see that Jessie is just a girl desperate for attention.
She’s also wanting attention from Shane (Charles Socarides), the cute boy in her class. And attention is what she gets when he gets her stoned one night at a party. She passes out, and he then rapes her.
Which brings us to the story proper: Awakening from the drug haze with no recollection of the rape, she realizes she is pregnant. And yet, if she has never had sex, her baby must be the Christ child. The film, written and directed by newcomer Deborah Kampmeier, then follows several paths, the main one involving Jessie’s spiritual rebirth, as it were; confronted with a series of haunting dreams (visions?), the changes of motherhood, and religious delusions, Jessie becomes more confident, more in tune with her deepest feelings. The repeat appearances of a mysterious homeless woman (Daphne Ruben-Vega) adds to the mystical qualities of Jessie’s journey, as these women connect like two lost souls who seem to be sharing some unknowable secret of the universe.
The other plot paths follow the reactions of family, friends, and neighbors to Jessie’s claims, as well as Shane’s problems dealing with his dark secret. As for the first, we get nothing really new here - there’s pressure on Jessie to “confess her sins and repent,” providing us with a commentary on the stifling nature of religious community that feels a smidge too heavy-handed. It’s here that the film is at its weakest, the forcefulness of the themes being too clunky to truly hit hard.
(This is made up, however, by a more secular view of the same issue. Jessie’s fellow students ostracize her, taunting her with unfair insults - really, how many of the people calling her a “whore” are virginal themselves? - and worse, physically abusing her. If the religious aspects of the movie don’t quite fit, the other moments in which the community abuses Jessie provides much food for thought. Why do we still allow the old sexual double standard? Why do some people find it acceptable to engage in acts that can only be described as vile and evil?)
As for Shane’s subplot, it’s given the least amount of screen time yet raises the hardest questions. We obviously want Shane to be punished, and yet we cannot stand the idea of Jessie learning that she was abused, that her holy child is just the product of a rape. The film is not comfortable with its conclusions - nor does it need to be - and while I’m not sure I agree with what happens, I’m glad to see Kampmeier refusing to wrap things up as tightly as a less daring movie would have.There are other issues at hand in “Virgin,” some of which I’m sure went over my head due to my status as a guy. There’s stuff on the wonders of motherhood and the importance of family and the hypocrisy of those who turn their noses at others and so much more. All of this makes “Virgin” a cluttered work, and at times I wasn’t sure that the movie knew exactly what it wanted to say. And yet it remains quite a powerful experience, and even if there are too many issues on the plate, they’re all important and noteworthy enough that the plate can afford to become a little crowded.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11739&reviewer=392
originally posted: 02/12/05 09:14:13