Re-examing the bleakest teen sex comedy of the 1980s.
Caution: some spoilers ahead.
If you rented videotapes in the first half of the 1980s, then it seemed that there was a 50% chance that no matter which film you were watching, it would be accompanied by at least one trailer for some trashy teen sex comedy, a genre that has been given little attention over the years but which spread like a rash from the end of the 1970s. Almost all these films looked awful and interchangeable, with horny teenage boys trying to score with a bevy of rather-too-hot chicks. But even as a horny teenage boy, I had no interest in these films – if I wanted to see boobs, there were plenty of movies out there that would deliver them in a more appealing package.
So I never saw The Last American Virgin and had pretty much dismissed it as more of the same. You can’t blame me – the trailer is beyond awful and makes the film look poor even by genre standards, while the poster is generic and unappealing. In fact, even when it practically landed in my lap, I was reluctant to sit down and watch the Blu-ray, expecting very little. But to my surprise, this is a film that transcends the limitations of its contemporaries, mixing sex comedy and drama in a way that really shouldn’t work, but does.
Of course, Boaz Davidson had already made this film once, as Lemon Popsicle, in his native Israel (something else that I was blissfully unaware of until I started watching and began to recognise scenes) and so he probably knew this weird mix would work. A somewhat autobiographical story, Davidson’s films effectively cover both the highs and lows of teenage life – the hormonal urges, the carefree fun, the unrequited / unspoken love that seems like the devastating experience you’ll ever have… and it does so in a way that actually feels real.
While Popsicle was a period piece set in the early 1960s, The Last American Virgin updates the story to ‘contemporary’ 1982 Los Angeles (this of course means that seen now, the film is even more of a period piece than the original!). It follows the adventures of three teenage boys – sensitive Gary (Lawrence Monoson), ladies man Rick (Steve Antin) and overweight David (Joe Rubbo) in their attempts to get laid, a somewhat episodic series of events that make up the bulk of the first hour or so of the movie. Whether it’s picking up three girls in a diner and taking them to a non-existent sex ‘n’ drugs party, meeting a Latino nympho on a pizza delivery or simply trying to score with cut high school girls, it all seems typical genre stuff, albeit rather more effectively handled than most. Interwoven with this is Gary and Rick’s relationship with new girl at school Karen (Diane Franklin) – Gary falls hopelessly in love with her the moment he claps eyes on her, but his fumbling efforts to ask her out are unsuccessful (perhaps because his obsessive staring has something of the stalker about it) and he has to watch as she instead hooks up with the smoother Rick. And it’s this relationship that slowly pulls the film away from the good times and horny antics and to a somewhat more serious place.
Things start to seem a little ‘off’ when the three boys hire a street hooker. This is far from your typical ‘good-time-girl initiating teenage boys into manhood’ scene – she takes them to what looks like a war zone, verbally abuses them and has perfunctory sex that leaves Gary puking in the corner. That the scene is followed by a comedic crabs infection doesn’t really make it seem any less depressing.
This shift in tone continues when it’s revealed that Rick has dumped Karen because she’s pregnant. After a confrontation with his former best friend, Gary decides to support Karen, scraping together the money for an abortion. The abortion scenes (soundtracked, rather ironically, by Catholic God botherers U2) are dark and traumatic – definitely not what you expect to find in a lightweight sex comedy. As Karen recovers, Gary spills his gut to her about his feelings, and it looks like a happy ending is on the cards. But no. Turning up for her birthday party, complete with especially-engraved jewellery, he finds her back in Rick’s arms.
This is a brilliantly handled moment – the lighting drops, the soundtrack eases and the sense of betrayal and guilt (more, it seems, from Rick than Karen) is all portrayed with effective subtlety. It’s a scene that you would never expect to find in a film like this – or any other American film, where neat wrap-ups are seemingly obligatory – and it’s devastating. No wonder Karen was so hated by cinema goers.
The Last American Virgin works because it brings an unexpected honesty and reality to to the teen sex comedy, while still delivering what the audience would expect. It’s relentless soundtrack of Eighties hits – ranging from Devo and Blondie to Journey and Lionel Ritchie – might nail it in time even more than the sometimes garish fashions, but it also works extremely well (even the likes of REO Speedwagon are effective here), creating both a continual feel-good party atmosphere in the first half and a reflection of the heartbreak and pain in the second. And the central performances are all excellent – Monoson is perhaps a little overly-intense in his mooning over Karen, but I suspect that’s not much of an exaggeration of how lovestruck teenage boys really do behave.
And it’s easy to see how just about every teenage boy in the world would fall in love with Diane Franklin. Her character is not malicious as much as self-centred… and even then not in an arrogant way. She comes across as a sweet girl for much of the film and that’s why we expect her to get together with Gary at the end and why her betrayal in returning to Rick – who has already treated her like shit after finally having sex with her, and almost certainly will continue to do so – also feels like a betrayal of the audience. The film doesn’t give us the ending we want and it’s all her fault!
There’s good support from Rubbo as the comic relief, Louisa Moritz as the sexy older woman and Kimmy Robertson as Karen’s friend with an unrequited crush on Gary (we could conceive an alternative version of the film from her viewpoint where Gary would be the villain of the piece), and for once, the teens in an American film actually look like teenagers.
The Last American Virgin turns out to be a real revelation. Not just a defining film of its era but also an excellent piece of filmmaking that takes you through emotional highs and lows in a way you won’t expect. If, like me, you’ve dismissed it as simply another slice of teenage fluff, you should think again.
Now, I need to dig out a copy of Lemon Popsicle to do a compare and contrast…