Seventeen-year-old Jessie Reynolds (Elisabeth Moss) doesn’t want to be the mother of Christ. But that’s who she thinks she is, after finding herself pregnant during her senior year of high school. Her conservative Baptist family does not react well to the news, demanding that she give the child up for adoption. Her unidentified small town community is similarly disapproving, its narrow-minded inhabitants cautionary tale caricatures. They repeatedly torment Jessie in church each Sunday, trying to make her name the child’s father and confess to her obvious sins.
Jessie is not actually the conduit for Jesus’ second coming. She was instead impregnated during a school dance, raped by her crush while drinking in the woods behind the parking lot. Though her memory of the event is obliterated by drugs and alcohol, Jessie’s belief that she might be special, chosen for this important role, changes her. She becomes increasingly self-aware, more sure of her own voice.
With Virgin, the first-time writer-director Deborah Kampmeier looks into life as an adolescent girl, and in so doing, illuminates interior lives of women of all ages. Each woman here is in some way fragmented at the hands of the men in their lives: Jessie’s mother (Robin Wright Penn) submits wholly to her husband’s (Peter Gerety) will, cowed by his thundering voice (he’s the local preacher) and resigned to his frequent absences.
The same can be said for her sister Katie (Stephanie Gatchet), who has so internalized the misogynistic teachings of her religion that she steadfastly refuses to believe that God could be female. As if to underline this point, Jessie encounters Frances (Daphne Rubin-Vega) while on her paper route. Ensnared in a cycle of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her partner, Frances relies on Jessie’s friendship for brief reprieves from her broken life.
Shot entirely with a digital video camera, in 21 days on a tiny budget, Virgin is an obvious labor of love, quite unlike mainstream depictions of female adolescence, that is, romantic comedies starring Hilary Duff. (According to press materials, the director engaged in tireless fundraising, and Robin Wright Penn’s support was crucial in getting the film made.) Indeed, at times, Kampmeier’s film is hard to watch. Jessie’s story is book-ended by rape scenes. Twice the audience watches as young men reach under Jessie’s clothes, remove her perfectly white underwear, and enter her without consent. The first violation results in her pregnancy, and the second — performed by a gang of neighborhood thugs looking to “teach her a lesson” — leads to a dreadful outcome.
As well, while Jessie’s internal transformation is inspiring, it is also problematic. Her impending motherhood is here the catalyst for newfound courage, a very real but entirely hegemonic narrative. This young woman’s transformation is too significant, too metaphorical, to be a credited only to her sense of maternal responsibility.
Virgin‘s potential subversion lies in its demonstration of the ways U.S> ideals and expectations are literally inscribed on the body of young women. Yet the film is ultimately hopeful. Jessie survives her small-town torment and her self-confidence ultimately strengthens the women around her. By the film’s conclusion, Katie’s mind opens enough for her to consider the idea that her sister may be a Christ figure, that the child that she is carrying may in fact be holy. The girls’ mother begins to gain some independence from their domineering father, and Frances leaves her abusive relationship. In the final scene, Jessie submerses herself in a pool of water, as if in baptism. Surrounded by dozens of naked followers (souls reborn), her daughter in her arms, she is the center of an image that inspires sympathy for her and the community she’s created.