The Last American Virgin

With I Love You, Don't Touch Me!, first-time filmmaker Julie Davis has made a low-budget movie about love and abstinence among under-30s that takes its cues less from the work of her generational peers -- Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (1995) or Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy (1997), for instance -- than from Woody Allen's quirky romances of the Seventies. Davis's film, though, lacks both the hipness and visual daring of a Gen-X romance and Allen's caustic, intellectual edge.

What this movie does offer is something hard to find in recent American films, Gen-X, Allen-penned, or otherwise: a convincing sweetness. It may in fact be the film's lack of cynicism that makes it seem a little bland. Most of its characters are likable and decent, and we sympathize with their plights. It surely took considerable courage for Davis to reveal herself in I Love You, which is largely autobiographical. If only her courage had energized the script and acting.

As the film begins, 25-year-old virgin Katie (an appealing Marla Schaffel) sees the man she's fallen in love with rolling around with another woman; fleeing the scene, Katie is hit, comically, by a car, and the accident becomes a metaphor for what she terms her "romantic holocaust."

Soon after the accident Katie has dinner with a woman friend who tells her that she's getting married; Katie instantly feels pressured to shack up -- pressure she deeply resents. Also present at this dinner is a close male friend named Ben (Mitchell Whitfield), who secretly harbors strong feelings for her. But much to Ben's chagrin, Katie is not interested in being more than "just friends." Adding insult to injury, one of Katie's next-door neighbors fornicates loudly while she's trying to sleep; she sings opera to drown out the din.

As she struggles to make her name as a lounge singer in between temp jobs, Katie meets Richard (Michael Harris), a smooth, Anglophilic, at times obnoxiously smug composer twenty years her senior, and she begins to drop her guard a little. Still, she defends her virginity to almost everyone she knows: Ben, her busty friend Janet (Meredith Scott Lynn), the predatory Richard, even her parents.

The film's dramatic structure somewhat resembles the one found in Chasing Amy and many Victorian novels: An independent-minded woman who has rejected heterosexual love (and in this case sex) learns to join the mainstream after innumerable internal monologues. It's one of the oldest devices in the book, and a good one, because it allows a writer or filmmaker to describe both a nonconforming character and a social milieu, and to play the two off each other.

But for the film to generate dramatic tension, we have to see the situation as artfully ambivalent -- its characters must convince us that virginity is a real, noble option in a world overrun with thoughtless promiscuity. The two lifestyles, ideally, should maintain a sort of push-pull dialogue. Katie needs to seem, as her friend Janet suggests, like a kind of Everywoman "torn by contradiction" in her search for both emotional and physical satisfaction in a heartless world. As it is, however, we see Katie only as overserious and uptight.

Low-budget first films can rarely be counted on for hotshot talent, so maybe it's unfair to point out the inconsistent quality of the acting in I Love You. But inconsistent it is. The most noteworthy performance comes from Lynn, who seems born to play the hedonistic Janet. (In the screenplay she's referred to as "Barbra Streisand on speed.") Lynn has the sort of sassy, bad-Jewish-girl manner that TV and cinema audiences love. Schaffel is for the most part convincingly frazzled and insecure, if not quite as electric as she needs to be to anchor the film, while Harris sometimes overplays his role as the sophisticated-but-insufferable older man.

More detrimental, though, is Whitfield. As the pudgy, nice, balding Ben, he conveys sweetness but not enough charisma or fire, and at times he plain overacts. (Sometimes, as in an argument over coffee, Katie and Ben's chemistry simply doesn't work.) It would be easy to look at every successful Woody Allen movie (the director of I Love You surely has) and demonstrate how Allen's screen persona combines nebbishy likability with a charm that is, by turns, nervous, hip, intellectual, and almost dangerously unpredictable. Whitfield's not there, at least not in this role. And yet his deficiencies would be forgivable if his performance didn't help point up the film's larger problems. Despite some dirty words and flashes of bare breasts, the whole thing is too goddamn nice. Its sweetness gets it, dramatically, only so far.

The other big problem here is the script. Some of it is just clunky or ordinary. The back-and-forth between the men and women isn't sufficiently charged. There are plays, movies, and short stories in which talking about love and sex seems almost as exciting as actually experiencing it. Here, though, as much as we sympathize with Katie, we wind up siding with her parents: We'd really like to see her stop talking in circles and -- for her own sake -- get going.

I Love You, Don't Touch Me!
Directed and written by Julie Davis. Starring Marla Schaffel, Mitchell Whitfield, Meredith Scott Lynn, and Michael Harris.

 
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