Dir: Sarah Jacobson
Coming of age cinema is rich and wide in the variety of stories it tells and the way it interprets them, but it can’t be denied that it has a preoccupation with certain kinds of story. One of the most prevalent of these is following teens on the way to the rite of passage that is the loss of their virginity. From the title, you might expect Sarah Jacobson’s only feature film to be one of these, but in this and many other respects, it is more interested in subverting the cliches of coming of age films.
Jacobson’s film skirts expectations from the beginning, as it opens with Jane (Lisa Gerstein) losing her virginity. What the rest of the film is about is something more sophisticated than the many almost quest-based narratives that follow (mostly) boys efforts to have sex for the first time, but a young woman who, while she has now had sex, doesn’t really understand it.
Much of the film takes place at a local art cinema where Jane and her friends work. We see her trying to sort through her feelings for various male friends, especially Tom (Chris Enright), who is handsome and seems more mature than most of the others, and Ryan (Bwana Spoons), who is nerdy and seems genuinely nice, but somewhat oblivious to Jane’s mild crush on him.
Jacobson’s writing has a very matter of fact tone to it. This comes through strongly as Jane listens to her friends’ stories of losing their virginity, including one involving a rape. In this case in particular, the frankness is almost disconcerting, these are issues seldom confronted in teen cinema and which as a society we’re still coming to grips with dealing with at all, in media or in law. To see Jacobson and her characters deal with it head on in 1996, and to realise that this scene still feels anomalous, is a real indictment of the cultural conversation and a powerful statement about how viscerally real Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore can feel.
This is very much an underground film, shot on Super 8 with largely non-professional actors, and the look and performances can be variable. Many scenes look very dark and the sets underdressed, the budget and the limitations of the film stock showing through. Other scenes are lent an immediacy and intimacy by the limits of Jacobson’s resources, especially a very close up back seat sex scene between Jane and Tom, which brilliantly captures the awkwardness and the desire between them and a montage of Jane and Ryan on a day out together, which has the warmth and carefree feel of a couple of friends messing about for the camera.
The acting captures the dynamic between late teens/early 20s friends well, with Gerstein and Beth Allen (a punk singer in her only film role) the standouts. The scene in which Allen’s Ericka talks to Jane about masturbation is another notable moment in the film’s dedication to representing sexuality from a female point of view. For the first hour, the writing captures the aimlessness and alienation the characters sometimes feel, without it weighing heavily on the film. It’s in the third act, when Jacobson injects a plot point that feels designed solely to draw things together with a big, dramatic, event that the writing rings a little false and the main performances falter a bit.
Though it has its flaws, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore is not just a very good film, it’s something rarer than that; a film that matters. 23 years after it was made it still feels different within the genre, it remains fierce and defiant, the sound of a clearly identifiable voice who knows exactly what she wants to say and to whom. The tools may not always work in the film’s favour, but the vision is always clear and compelling. This is just one of many reasons that it’s tragic that Sarah Jacobson is no longer with us. Jacobson died of uterine cancer in 2004, aged just 32. Her body of work is sadly small: this sole feature, the short I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, a handful of music videos and a retrospective making of for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (a film whose influence is felt throughout Mary Jane). I don’t doubt that there was much more to come from this vital and fascinating voice and it’s great to see that Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore has now been preserved on a new Blu Ray release, also including I Was A Teenage Serial Killer.