Using handheld lensing to embrace a young woman's frightening spiritual/sexual experience, Deborah Kampmeier's "Virgin" evinces too much of the Lars Von Trier influence while falling victim to some of its central character's overt strangeness. Certain to divide auds, the film is never quite as startling or mysterious as it seems to want to be.

Using handheld, intimately close-up lensing to embrace a young woman’s frightening spiritual/sexual experience, Deborah Kampmeier’s “Virgin” evinces too much of the Lars Von Trier influence (especially “Breaking the Waves”) while falling victim to some of its central character’s overt strangeness. Certain to divide fest and — if it’s lucky — theatrical auds with its intensity, the film is never quite as startling or mysterious as it seems to want to be, leaving it in an uncertain cinematic limbo.

Jessie (Elisabeth Moss) is the rebel child of a born-again Christian family led with an iron hand by her dad (Peter Gerety), while more sensitive mom (Robin Wright Penn) looks on. In contrast, goodie-goodie younger sister Katie (Stephanie Gatschet) is too broadly drawn to feel true, though her way of handling the advances of local boys Shane (Charles Socarides) and Michael (Sam Riley) is much more complexly drawn and eventually more crucial to the narrative.

For Jessie, a seemingly innocuous drunken encounter with Shane in the woods during a school dance turns into something much darker, when she later claims to be miraculously pregnant, with her virginity intact.

Moss plays Jessie at a fever pitch that lends “Virgin” an atmosphere of uneaseand imbalance. Though her condition could be attributed to teen hysteria, Moss’ complex characterization and Kampmeier’s lurking camera, attached to the lead at nearly all times (recalling not only Von Trier but to a certain extent the Dardennes’ “Rosetta” and “The Son”), cuts against such an easy reading.

Eventually, the ways a supposedly “bad girl” can present a conservative small town, her strictly religious family and a few randy boys with claims that produce ugly and wrathful responses can go only so far. And rather than adding new dimensions to the breadth of Jessie’s dilemma, her encounters with two lonely women — one homeless, the other abused — tilt things in an unconvincingly polemical and obvious direction.

Moss creates a sad character with interesting shades of boredom, curiosity, nerve and wonder, far outdistancing a supporting cast mostly relegated to playing hard-edged types. Production, combining vid and film, is done with a rigorous rawness.

Virgin

Production

A Full Moon Films presentation. Produced by Sarah Schenk. Executive producers, Robin Wright Penn, Raye Dowell, Deborah Kampmeier. Co-producer, Carolyn Demerice. Directed, written by Deborah Kampmeier.

Crew

Camera (Swete Studios color, digital video), Ben Wolf; editor, Jane Pia Ambromowitz; production designer, Katherine Mathews; sound, Anthony Viera; supervising sound editor, Eric Offin; associate producers, Jeffrey Sosnick, Brian Schreckenghost, John Valentine, David Oliver Cohen, Perri Kipperman; assistant director, Terry Leonard. Reviewed at IFP Los Angeles Film Festival (Narrative), June 14, 2003. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Elisabeth Moss, Daphne Rubin Vega, Socorro Santiago, Peter Gerety, Stephanie Gatschet, Sam Riley, Charles Socarides, Christopher Wynkoop, Robin Wright Penn. (English, Spanish dialogue.)

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