Review: ‘Virgin Tales’

"Virgin Tales"

There's something indescribably creepy about watching teenage girls at father-daughter purity balls pledge to marry men just like Daddy, which is why Mirjam von Arx's scrupulously respectful stance in "Virgin Tales" is the wisest position she could take.

There’s something indescribably creepy about watching teenage girls at father-daughter purity balls pledge to marry men just like Daddy, which is why Mirjam von Arx’s scrupulously respectful stance in “Virgin Tales” is the wisest position she could take. Focusing exclusively on Randy Wilson, the founder of the balls, and his family, von Arx trusted her subjects enough to realize no other commentary was needed, resulting in a disturbing docu that underscores the polarized nature of today’s culture wars. Also available in a truncated 57-minute TV version, “Tales” can be spun out to targeted indie playhouses following well-received fest appearances.

Purity balls were also addressed in docu “Daddy I Do,” but von Arx sticks to the source, knowing outside pundits couldn’t say anything that’s not already apparent from the two years she spent following the Wilsons. The ceremony-obsessed family clearly knows the helmer isn’t of the same mindset, but their unfailingly upbeat presentation and absolute conviction in God’s love mean that not an ounce of uncertainty can breach their sunny sense of security.

From inside and out, the Wilsons’ home in Colorado Springs is preternaturally perfect. Dad Randy is field director for the Family Research Council, worshiped by his adoring wife Lisa and their five daughters and two sons. The kids are home-schooled, cocooned in a world where Charles Darwin is probably a bothersome footnote, and Betty Friedan, as well as the late Helen Gurley Brown, nonentities. The immaculately groomed girls, now ranging in age from 9 to 27, have been raised with one thought in mind: marriage. Wifedom is their vocation and purity their code; not even a kiss will be exchanged before they get to the altar.

Back in 1998, Wilson began the first of the father-daughter purity balls, where fathers in formal attire admire their daughters in virginal gowns dancing before a wooden cross, and then sign pledges to be role-models of spotlessness. The concept took off, and similar balls are held in 48 states and abroad, with the Wilsons stumping for virginity at conservative conventions. The two eldest daughters are married to men of similar convictions, while Jordyn, 23, anxiously waits for God to put the right man in her path (though not stated in the docu, auds will be relieved to know she tied the knot in April).

At von Arx’s suggestion, Jordyn began a video diary, explaining her outlook and imagining her future soulmate. Already feeling like an old maid, she passes the time until Mr. Right turns up by offering classes in the finer points of ladylike behavior. Though the ball is pitched as a return to a more gracious time, this and everything else about the Wilsons isn’t a throwback to the past but an ahistorical imagining of it, fittingly illustrated by son Logan’s “Manhood Ceremony,” complete with Arthurian sword. Perhaps more than anything else, what “Virgin Tales” really shows is the deep-seated fear certain evangelicals (of all creeds) have toward contemporary society.

It’s this fear that keeps them in a hermetic world, uninterested in associating with other viewpoints; they do watch movies, but fast-forward through sex scenes. Von Arx wisely avoids drawing any conclusions, but many viewers will wonder how sustainable such a bubble is for a community that, unlike the Amish, revels in the trappings of consumer society.

Visuals, from the crisp lensing to expert editing, are painstakingly neutral in outlook; any sense of parody comes from the people themselves rather than the helmer’s p.o.v. Music includes songs written and performed by the Wilson girls that celebrate “saying no for the greater yes.”

Virgin Tales

Switzerland

Production

A Praesens-Film release of an Ican Films, SRF, SRG SSR, Arte Geie production. (International sales: Films Transit Intl., Montreal.) Produced, directed by Mirjam von Arx. Written by Michele Wannaz, von Arx.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Kirsten Johnson, Claudia Raschke; editor, Sabine Krayenbuehl; music, Adrian Frutiger; sound (Dolby Digital), Christian Beusch, Judy Karp. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Appellations Suisse), Aug. 10, 2012. (Also in SilverDocs Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Randy Wilson, Lisa Wilson, Lauren Wilson Black, Colten Wilson, Khrystian Wilson Lewis, Jordyn Wilson, Logan Wilson, Kameryn Wilson, Kaalyn Wilson, Brett Black, Anna Wilson, Chad Lewis. (English dialogue)

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  1. Renee Whitehead says:

    I think that it is creepy how society views virtues of purity as weird and oddball. How abortions are the norm and just live with whoever you take a fancy to is just fine and dandy. What is wrong with having a moral compass? You point out this family wouldn’t associate with those in contemparary society. Would you associate with them? I predict not. Their high ground of virtue causes in guilt and conviction in your very contempary lifestyle so your way of dealing with it is to deem it creepy. This is the teaching of the church to not know another sexuallly until marriage. This family is not doing all the ceremonies etc. Out of fear, but rather in a response to societies casual attitute towards sex. It is to celebrate their choice to follow the Scripture and honor their vows to do so. I mean come on already! You even point out how neat their home is and how nicely they are all groomed! What in the world is wrong with being a non slob? Your review truly doesn’t surpise me. Whatever is worthy of praise or virtuous is now regarded as odd, creepy and weird. Gods’ virtues don’t change.

    • Rex says:

      A couple years late here, but hey Renee, do you honestly believe that ONLY Christian extremists like the Wilsons are capable of saving sex until marriage? It’s attitudes like theirs — and yours — that continue to divide the country because everything is us or them. It’s sickening.

      Obviously, Renee, you didn’t even watch this film before opening your yapper on this review, but having ACTUALLY just finished it myself, I can say without reservation that this (now old) review is spot on. This family FEARS the culture that is leaving them behind, and it works “purposefully” to keep its daughters UNEDUCATED and SUBSERVIENT TO MEN. One of the daughters even admits, with a distinct trace of regrets in her voice, that she’s happy saving her parents the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to educate her because she was born to please a man and, presumably, get bred by him whenever he felt like it, then clean his house. Sick. If that doesn’t sound almost EXACTLY like what extremist Muslims do to their women — only without the burka — then I don’t know what does!

      And in fact, at one point when the desperately unmarried daughter is teaching one of her “be a lady” classes, she warns against the dangers of BENDING OVER in any innocuous way (like at a fountain) or covering up any hint of cleavage even when wearing a cleavage-baring shirt! Well, hon, time for the burk– uhh, I mean CLOAK of purity to make sure those lusty men don’t cream their jeans and yours over a peak of boob flesh. This movie is a phenomenal piece of work, providing as it does a look into a very diseased segment of American society.

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