Sunday, July 21, 2024

From the Vault: Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore

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People often talk about how you couldn’t make certain films today. The arguments are largely false, often rooted in a kind of conservative hysterics coated in recency bias. Yet, there are movies you couldn’t make today, but it’s not the ones you think.

The movies that wouldn’t get made today are movies like Sarah Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Movies without plots, made on threadbare budgets and shot on 16mm. Similar to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Jacobson wrote and directed the film. She defines her characters by how they talk and what they talk about.

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From left to right: Erickah (Beth Ramona Allen), Grace (Marny Snyder Spoons), and Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) sit in the crew room and discuss life

Instead of a New Jersey convenience store and a video store, much of Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore takes place in a rundown theatre in the Twin Cities. Like Smith, Jacobson’s geography is an integral part of her movie. The Midwest sensibilities and attitudes are deeply rendered through a loving, and at times, satirical lens. 

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore has the structure of a genre movie but with a grunge aesthetic. This allows Jacobson to poke fun at the absurdities of the 90s Midwest values but also keeps her from being cynical. All the more remarkable is that Jacobson isn’t from the Midwest herself.

Unlike Smith, Jacobson understood the camera could be more than a recording device. Shot by Adam Dodds, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore will periodically give us a scene twice: once in the melodramatic Hollywoodized version and then the messy real, un-glamorous version. Moments such as the opening scene where we see a boy and a girl, softly lit, as the girl confesses it’s her first time. The boy listens and tells her he understands and this is more than merely sex. 

Jacobson and Wood then cut to an overhead shot of Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) on a blanket in a cemetery in obvious pain as her beau Steve (Shane Kramer) clumsily humps away to the point that Mary Jane calls the whole thing off. Right off the bat, Jacobson is ridiculing the glamorized idealized fantasy while not sparing the awkwardness of reality.

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is a movie about a girl discovering sex. Only in Jacobson’s riot girl feminist hands, the film never leers, exploits, and often has a forthright honesty that feels refreshing by any standards, much less modern ones. Jacobson gives Mary Jane the grace and freedom to come into her own through trial and error.

Mary Jane is so put off by her first experience that she finds herself asking her friends and co-workers about their experiences. Jacobson’s dialogue mixes verisimilitude with archness. Allowing her characters not to sound written but also allowing them to not sound boring. It’s all part of Jacobson’s desire to graft the polished cinematic trope onto the messy reality of life. Jacobson loved doing that kind of thing; such as with her short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer. She took a drive-in picture premise and turned it into a mediation on how being a woman in modern society is enough to drive one to homicide.

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore aims at John Hughes’s movies and those old educational films they made you watch in Health Class. Imitating and mocking movies like Reefer Madness are made with fear in an attempt to scare the youth into obeying. Using the artifice to find the truth. Mary Jane and her coworkers talk about sex, rape, and masturbation. Grace (Marny Snyder Goons) confesses to Mary Jane that her first time happened when she was asleep but that it didn’t count. “It only counts if you consent.” 

Mary Jane’s sexual journey isn’t exploitative. Instead, when Mary Jane is told about masturbation by her dreadlock-wearing co-worker Ericka (Beth Ramona Allen), Jacobson and Wood focus on Mary Jane’s face. 

The realization that she can control how and what pleasures her is a revelation. The scene where she masturbates is shot with Mary Jane in bed, bathed in white light, as the camera zooms in on her face as bliss overwhelms her. Unlike so many coming-of-age movies involving young girls, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is told from a girl’s perspective. Masturbation itself is often treated as fodder for cringe-comedy and rarely as the exploration and understanding of one’s body that it is.

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Mary Jane (Gerstein) and Grace (Spoons) take a break from work.

Jacobson shows the pitfalls and emotional baggage of teenage carlessness but somehow never comes off as moralizing. From preppy Grace’s eventual pregnancy to Ericka coming out as bisexual, the characters in Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore roar with life and ideas. In addition, Jacobson understands how at that age work friends and real friends are often one and the same.

The treatment of Ericka’s coming out is treated with more care and honesty than usual for the time. Biphobia was and is a real thing and it’s rare to see a bisexual character treated so honestly and plainly. Allen’s Ericka almost steals the show as the tough-talking, beer-swilling, grunge-punk rocker who loves her friends and sticks up for them.

Jacobson even confronts the realities of abortion when Grace reveals she’s pregnant. She can’t get an abortion because she’s five months along. The conversation is never melodramatic, always straightforward as these kids, some technical adults, stumble their way through the dark for the right answers. Through it all Jacobson never feels as if she’s judging them.

Even the alcoholic Matt (Andrew DeAngelo), a guy who Mary Jane loathes, feels part of their group. For better or worse, jerk or not, he understands the trials and tribulations of working at a movie theater. At one point Jacobson gives us a montage of customers complaining about ticket prices, service, and the quality of the popcorn. The way she captures the arrogance and abuse hurled by the customers are word for word things I’ve had yelled at me while working at AMC or the Arclight.

You can feel Jacobson’s rage and love coming through every frame. She and Dodds use simple set-ups to both craft a fly-on-the-wall approach while also using the lack of funds to craft an almost black box theater-type setting. Set to a soundtrack of local punk rock bands of the time such as HOT DAMN, Mudhoney, and The Loudmouths, the soundtrack gives the film a kinetic rhythm. 

The music serves as a middle finger to the way Hollywood has commodified and sanitized the teenage experience. Combined with the Super 8 camera Dodd and Jacobson shot on, the whole film has a DIY feel to it that only adds to its slipshod charms. The film exists because Jacobson needed it to exist. This isn’t an IP cash grab, this is Jacobson reaching into her psyche and her surroundings and creating something flawed and alive.

The script for Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore lets boys and girls about how their first time was awkward, humiliating, uncomfortable, and just plain bad. Because sex isn’t something that magically happens. It requires communication and understanding of the other person, two things teenagers are historically bad at grappling with. 

Gerstein’s performance is perfectly pitched as a teenager from the suburbs yearning for the so-called authenticity of her working-class co-workers. A great student, Mary Jane has a bright future ahead of her. Something Grace and Ericka keep trying to tell her while also counseling her about her crush on the introvert Ryan (Bwana Spoons) or the suave Matt (Andrew DeAngelo).

Meanwhile, Jacobson also captures the often absurd strain of conservatism that runs through a vein in the most liberal midwest city. One theater patron is constantly vaguely threatening the coworkers not to show any smut while also asking them if they’ve accepted Jesus in their hearts. The character is funny, but in a way, he’s also terrifying in how accurate he is. It brought back memories of my best friend in high school, whose family didn’t celebrate Halloween because they believed it was inviting Satan into their house.

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Mary Jane (Gerstein) and the hunky Matt (Andrew DeAngelo) flirt while walking home from work.

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore triggered a tidal wave of memories from my youth in Missouri. I too had a gay boss who I talked to about sex and classic films. Being a teenager is never easy, no matter the generation, and Jacobson captures the universality of it through the specificity of the characters. 

But watching Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore it’s impossible not to mourn a time when movies like this could find their way into the world. Movies made on the cheap and that hadn’t been workshopped to death through Sundance Institutes. In other words, when there was a legitimate independent scene. 

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is a scrappy movie from a singular cinematic voice from the 90s. The feminism of the story is embedded in the framing itself, it is not part of the marketing campaign. Politically honest and transgressive feel more stark because of Jacobson’s humanism. 

Images courtesy of Station Wagon Productions

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