Deborah Kampmeier’s film “Virgin” is an unconventional fairy-tale. There are no monsters to kill, the Prince character doesn’t strike you as too charming, and the heroine is not the fairest maiden in the land. Jessie Reynolds (Elisabeth Moss) is the protagonist and as her behavior indicates, she’s far from the typical heroine. She’ll drive without a license, steal clothes and cosmetics, and for a bottle of Jack Daniels, she’ll passionately kiss a stranger. Her sister Katie (Stephanie Gatchet), on the other hand, is a law-abiding citizen, a devout Christian, and is much prettier. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds (Paul Gerety and Robin Wright Penn) don’t directly say it, but the phrase “why can’t you be more like your sister” must cross their minds on a daily basis. Jessie is nearly everything her family and community don’t want her to be and for this reason, she’s the ideal heroine for this captivating story about faith and transformation.
Jessie is on a quest. Instead of searching for an object or a person, though, she’s trying to attain a clearer understanding of self-worth and purpose. It begins the moment she discovers that she’s pregnant. In order for this knowledge to have the most profound impact on Jessie and your perception of her spiritual growth, you have to be aware of something that she isn’t. Jessie believes that she’s carrying Christ’s child because she cannot remember getting drunk and making out with Shane (Charles Socarides), a fellow she fancies. She doesn’t remember conking her head against the trunk of a tree and him taking advantage of her loss of consciousness. It may seem unfair to mislead Jessie, but it’s vital. In fact, the film implicitly argues that on occasion, it takes the pretense of a religious experience to compel some people to change the way they think or live. “Virgin” details how Jessie’s pregnancy affects her life and what obstacles she must overcome to reach the end of her journey a much stronger person.
Under someone else’s direction, Jessie’s pregnancy would likely signal a shift in the film’s imagery. Kampmeier, however, doesn’t allow her film to veer into special-effects-land or to become too stylistic. She wants to maintain a level of believability, which is effectively conveyed through subtlety. You don’t receive full access to Jessie’s visions but there are cues that let you know she’s having one. For instance, the presence of birds and manipulated frame-rate signify that God is speaking to Jessie. Minimizing the degree of visual-variation is consistent with the director’s approach in creating a unique dynamic between the heroine and the viewer. Kampmeier employs the hand-held camera aesthetic, which adds realism to the film’s look, but more importantly it ensures that you never get too comfortable watching the images. It’s as if the director wants you to remember who you are and not get lost in the film. You’re not supposed to live vicariously through Jessie. The camera’s lens serves as a window rather than a mirror. Placed in a voyeuristic position, it’s easier for you to develop a fondness for her. Jessie will drink and drive and sometimes forget to wear her seat belt, but you can’t dislike her. She may not be a model citizen, but she’s an honest, non-judgmental girl whose faith in life needs re-awakening. In addition to undergoing a spiritual metamorphosis, Jessie learns that like all heroes and heroines, she must rely upon help from others in order to succeed.