Halfway through last month's Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Sarah Jacobson is sounding off about her distaff coming-of-age comedy Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore. She's also sounding off about the virtues of sounding off. "It really freaks people out," Jacobson says, "when I'm like, 'Well, no, I'm not a lesbian, but yeah, I am pretty butch and I do like to speak my mind and I'll kick your ass if you fuck with me.'"
You go, girl. The day before, the 25-year-old Jacobson regaled a Writer's Guild workshop with, among other things, her thoughts on the mainstream's lack of attention to female masturbation and orgasm. This led to an intimate huddle of aspiring women screenwriters, one of whom held forth on the amazing documentary about jerking off that she'd seen five years ago. "The same thing happened in New York at the Independent Feature Film Market [IFFM]," Jacobson recalls. "I was in a big group of people and I said, 'Well, I wanted to do a film about a girl who finds where her clit is and how to use it.' And all these people just started talking about sex and masturbation." In other words, the floodgates opened? "Yeah," she says. "No pun intended."
Jacobson's uncensored demeanor is all the more remarkable for the fact that Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore--her first feature, screened out of competition at Sundance--has led to meetings in Park City with big-shot producers and distributors, as well as Robert Redford himself. ("Pretty freaky," she says of her encounter with the latter.) Another debutante auteur might be expected to act polite, or at least a little nervous. But that's not her. "I kinda went through so much shit when I was younger that I'm really not too afraid of speaking my mind in front of people. After you've been through the whole high school-torture thing," she says, "the rest comes easy."
Before moving to San Francisco in 1991 to become a filmmaker, Jacobson attended high school in Edina, Minnesota, where she got her first lessons in non-conformity. "At Edina there were these girls who were really blond," she remembers. "They were jocks and they got good grades, and I was like, 'I wanna be friends with these girls. These are the perfect girls.' And they were friends with me, but only as a way of trying to get me to convert to Christianity and go with them to these religious camps, which freaked me out. After that I was like, 'You know, fuck this. I'm not going to sit around and wait for these people to accept me. So I started hanging out with the burnouts and doing drugs. As you start to explore like that, it does give you confidence."
Mary Jane is equally rebellious and unabashed. Shot in 16mm on a well-tied shoestring, the film is an energetic portrait of its high school protagonist's sexual experiences while working at a Midwestern art-house--based loosely on Jacobson's own pre-college stint at the Uptown Theatre in 1989. As the straight-laced Jane (Lisa Gerstein) finds herself with the help of some more experienced friends, the film suggests a grungier take on Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. "I'm so obsessed with those movies," Jacobson says of the early '80s teen-sex genre. "Those are the only movies where you can see teenagers really having sex."
On the other hand, Jacobson's warmly unrefined aesthetic bears little resemblance to the Hollywood model. Throughout Mary Jane, Jacobson seeks to measure the distance between movie sex and real sex: Exaggeratedly cheesy reenactments of '60s-style melodramas, and playful references to the teen-flick likes of Reckless and Rebel Without a Cause, find their antithesis in cinema-verite scenes like the heroine's unceremonious "devirginization." "I wasn't asking you to walk off into the sunset with me or anything," she tells this "lover" after he jilts her, demonstrating Jane's (and Jacobson's) desire for a more believable kind of happy ending.
Notably, it's Jane's intimate bonds with her co-workers, rather than any one guy, that take center stage. While the Victori Theater screens heavy-breathing sex epics with titles like "Kiss My Pineapple," the employees collectively suffer obnoxious ticket-buyers, talk about sex, and live in wait for their after-hours bashes. The bulk of Mary Jane takes place at the theater, which suited Jacobson's fond Uptown memories of "this place where even at 2 a.m. there'd be people drinking in the basement," as well as her need to save money on locations. What the film lacks in production values it makes up for in the freedom to stop the show for a blissful masturbation montage--or stage a late-night road-trip to Madison that climaxes near the Wisconsin border with some oral adventuring between Jane and Tom (Chris Enright).
At Sundance, Mary Jane stood in refreshing contrast to such juvenile male fantasies as Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy. It was also one of the only features to embody the DIY ethos of festival yore: Jacobson wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the low-budget film herself. ("Under a million" is as close as she'll come to specifying the budget, fearing industry pigeonholing.) But she had plenty of boosters along the way. Ruth Jacobson, Sarah's business-minded mom, moved to San Francisco from Edina to get the production better organized. And helped by the success of her thrillingly raw, self-distributed short "I Was a Teenage Serial Killer" (made in '92 with the guidance of her mentor, George Kuchar, and named by Film Threat as one of the 25 best underground films of all time), the director earned the support of fellow girl auteurs like Tamra Davis and Allison Anders. It didn't hurt either that Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon donated money, or that Roger Ebert saw Mary Jane at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and saw fit to praise its "unaffected freshness."
Autobiography or no, the film sports a happy ending that now seems inseparable from Jacobson's own. For one thing, Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore concludes with a shot of the theater marquee touting a movie entitled Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore. For another, this is a filmmaker who clearly represents the virtues of independent optimism, and who's bent on tailoring her own art to inspire more of the same. "In terms of relating to the guy that I lost my virginity to," Jacobson says, "the movie was a chance to say the things that I didn't get to say at the time. Most girls don't get to do that, in films or in real life. But as a filmmaker, you do get to have the last word. You can write your own happy endings, and I just love that kind of power." CP
Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore screens Friday at 8 p.m. at the Walker Art Center.