Deborah Kampmeier struggles to evoke an ‘immaculate conception’
Did you ever expect to see a modern-day telling of the Immaculate Conception set in a dreary little upstate New York town, near the Nanuet Mall?
Director Deborah Kampmeier manages to take a typical rebellious teenager and turn her into a symbol of the subordination of women in society, religion and the family, and she does it on a shoestring budget, on digital video, and in the face of a variety of production problems. Robin Wright Penn, who plays the mother of the family at the story’s center, read the script, loved it, and was something of an angel for the production, accepting no salary and staying in a cheap hotel during filming.
“Virgin” starts with Jessie Reynolds (Elizabeth Moss) trading on some feminine wiles to get a misplaced cowboy to buy her a bottle of bourbon before rushing to see her sister Katie (Stephanie Gatchet) cross the finish line in a foot race. Katie is repulsed by the greeting she receives from her drunken sister, saying, “I didn’t win for you. I won for God.”
Much of “Virgin” is like this. Jessie’s behavior swings from revolutionary defiance to obedience of her family (of sorts). Her worst crimes are shoplifting sprees. Rounding out the dysfunctional, yet religious family are her mother (Penn) and her father (Peter Gerety). Neither character is given a first name—they come across merely as authority figures, not real people, in Jessie’s life.
Jessie moons over a preppy boy who manages the diner, the uncomfortable Shane (Charles Socarides). After scoffing at the idea of going to a school dance, she attends once she hears Shane will be there. Jessie catches up to him as he retrieves some contraband beer in the bushes, and the two share a furtive make-out session in the woods, even though Shane’s girlfriend is inside the dance. Jessie accepts the Quaalude that Shane offers as though it were a communion wafer that a priest of old would place directly on the Mass-goer’s tongue. When she passes out, Shane sheds his earlier shyness, and rapes her while she is unconscious.
Jessie soon senses that she’s pregnant and since she cannot remember being violated, assumes that she is carrying the second Christ child. This notion does not go over well in a fundamentalist family, her father, who regularly cheats on his wife, slapping her as he calls her blasphemous. Katie is also aghast, saying, “You’re horrible! Why would God talk to you instead of me.”
Jessie is pretty much alone in the world, and her solitary existence is underscored with her regular routine of delivering newspapers before sunrise while the rest of the town sleeps.
Jessie’s pregnancy changes her; she suddenly seems to possess knowledge and qualities she hadn’t before. She understands the ranting Spanish of the crazy woman camped outside the family’s home. She recounts a story broadcast on the radio that she never heard but somehow remembers. She is also sure her child will be a girl, despite having foregone an ultrasound test.
The world outside Jessie’s family is no more supportive of her pregnancy. Kids leave nasty notes in her locker; sophomore gossips inform her classmates that she’s slept with the entire football team; her car is defaced with “whore” and “slut.” Not surprisingly, she’s kinder to outcasts than anyone else in her church. She tries to comfort the crazed Lorna, who screams on her doorstep, and she befriends Leslie (Leslie Graves), a battered woman. At nine months, Jessie is attacked by hooded boys and left propped up against a guard rail. The imagery the scene evokes is reminiscent of both the Crucifixion and Matthew Shepard’s horrifying end on a split-rail fence.
“Virgin” has small-budget merits, but also an uneven narrative. Elizabeth Moss’s Jessie is a believable teen trying, despite her naiveté, to come as sophisticated. Yet at times, the director’s adult ideas come out of her mouth, as when she declares, “I don’t want to be the mother of Christ, I want to be Christ.”
Kampmeier spent a lot of money on hallucinatory scenes in which Jessie is beset by birds landing on her hair, while the actors went unpaid. She also cut two hours out of her preferred version of the film—down to 108 minutes. Perhaps the massive editing accounts for the story’s fantastic leap from Jessie learning of her pregnancy to being ready to give birth, and for why all of her tormentors are on her back in what seems like just a day or two.
Yet, “Virgin” scores on some levels, and reminds us how undervalued young women and their ideas are. Kampmeier choice of setting those inequities against a biblical parable is daring.
But digital video, perhaps too cheap a medium, combined with a passionate rookie’s idealism, unfortunately buried Kampmeier’s flashes of brilliance amidst too many poor editing choices.
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