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.
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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.”