Sunday, March 31, 2013

Restless Virgins (Front Street Pictures, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Restless Virgins, a made-for-TV movie premiered on the Lifetime channel a few weeks ago (March 9) which I’d been interested in watching because it promised some good clean dirty fun about a group of upper-class students at the exclusive Sutton prep school (based on the real Milton Academy in Massachusetts, located eight miles south of Boston) who decide that as their annual “legacy hand-off” to the undergraduates who’ll remain there next year after they leave to make a clandestine sex tape, blur out their faces and burn it to DVD. Though not without its flaws — Andy Cochran’s script (based on a book by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley that’s listed on imdb.com as a “novel” even though the film’s credits say it was a nonfiction book about a real scandal at Milton in 2005) and Jason Lapeyre’s direction occasionally fall into typical Lifetime slovenliness — it’s a powerful tale about the sense of entitlement shared by the children of America’s 1 percent and the way they believe they can literally do anything they want, no matter how many other people suffer in the process, because their money and their family connections will always be available to bail them out of the consequences the rest of the world has to deal with when they commit similar crimes. (We’ve seen that most recently in the announcement by attorney general Eric Holder that none of the big-bank executives who helped bring down the economy in 2008 will be prosecuted, even if some their behavior was genuinely criminal, because if they are it will only shake confidence in the banking and financial system — which led to a lot of bitter joking from members of the 99 percent that “too big to fail” has become “too big to jail.” It was as explicit a statement as any screenwriter would dare to concoct that the people running the economy are literally above the law.) 

There’s also another theme: the tension between the people who get to go to schools like Sutton because they’re part of America’s hereditary ruling class — the principal villain, Dylan Whitman (Charles Carver, whose dark, charismatic handsomeness and whole attitude that the normal rules don’t apply to him nail this role to perfection), is referred to as “the son of a billionaire Senator” — and the ones that have got there through scholarships. Anyone who’s read George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Days … ” will recall his vivid description of how the scholarship boys at elite schools were always made to feel like they didn’t really deserve to be there, they were being given this incredible education at the sufferance of both the school authorities and the fellow students whose parents could afford the full tuition, and they were never allowed to forget that even though they had been admitted to this elite institution they were still second-class citizens (with the rest of humanity being considered third-class, or even lesser, citizens). The world of Sutton is a microcosm of the American so-called “meritocracy” — quotes intended because “merit” has little or nothing to do with it; it’s really an hereditary aristocracy as hard if not harder to crack than anything Old Europe ever came up with (indeed, modern economic statistics indicate that the U.S. actually has less upward mobility than Western European countries) — in which the class system is overlaid on top of the usual pecking order of a high school, with the popular kids forming cliques and excluding the rest of the student body, while sex and partying are used as ways either to get yourself in with the “in crowd” or to get yourself even more definitively excluded.

The central characters, in terms of people who actually display a sense of idealism that clashes with what they know they have to do to get ahead in this foul world, are Emily (Vanessa Marano), a reporter for the school newspaper who narrates the story, and Lucas (Max Lloyd-Jones), who was briefly attracted to Emily when they were both freshmen (freshpeople?) until he realized that he couldn’t get to the upper-class circle in general and Dylan in particular if he burdened himself with a girlfriend so far down on the pecking order. So instead he started dating Heather (Elise Gatien) and eventually, once he was admitted to Dylan’s residential suite, spread the word that he and Heather were having sex. Heather, furious that he would destroy her reputation just to curry favor among his upper-class “buddies,” broke up with him, and later it turns out that he was lying: he’s never had sex with Heather or anyone else — and neither has Emily (they must be the “restless virgins” alluded to in the title). Emily is worried that she won’t be admitted to an Ivy League college — she’s set her sights on both Harvard and Princeton but gets turned down by both — while Lucas has been accepted to Harvard but worries that he won’t have the money to go there and will have to retreat to his home state, Nebraska, and attend a state school there. Emily’s colleague at the paper, Anya (Rami Kahlon), has got the word that she’s going to Harvard and has qualified for financial aid — and insult is added to injury when Emily’s parents call her and say she’s received a packet from Princeton saying that she’s been rejected but offering her the chance to apply for extension classes there (a kind of academic brush-off that says we’ll allow you to pay us to study here but we won’t give you the cachet of being a “Princeton student”).

While all this is happening Dylan and his friends, including oil heir Cotton (Jedediah Goodacre) — whose masculinity is under suspicion since fellow members of the clique caught him looking at Gay porn on a computer — are plotting to shoot their clandestine sex tape, which involves borrowing a special low-light camera from the journalism school and recruiting Madison (Christie Burke) to be their clandestine “star,” making it with six guys in a gang-bang she, of course, doesn’t know is being filmed. The tape is duly made, and Dylan and friends blur out their own faces so they can’t be identified — though Madison is clearly visible and recognizable — and Dylan makes the rest of his posse swear to secrecy. Only one of them leaks the tape to a friend, and soon it goes viral throughout the school and naturally comes to the attention of the school administration. Lucas was supposed to be at the gang-bang — instead he and Emily slipped out that night to a date, where they were supposed to attend a lecture on Rosa Parks for a class assignment (the fact that they picked Rosa Parks as the subject of a school paper shows they have at least the glint of idealism in their characters). Lucas stranded Emily there when Dylan texted him that they were going to shoot the sex video that night — he palmed her off with cab fare home — but then couldn’t restart his car and was stranded there for three hours while the video gang-bang went on without him. Eventually the tape reaches Emily while, by freak coincidence (or authorial fiat), she happens to be working on an article called “Sex as Currency” about how Sutton students use both sex and the threat of denying sex to get ahead in the school’s pecking order — and, seeing a perfect chance to illustrate her article, she posts the video to the paper’s Web site. For this she gets expelled from Sutton, and so does the poor klutz at the school paper whose only involvement with the video was lending them the special camera with which it was shot.

In order to avoid being prosecuted for all this, Dylan makes both Lucas and Emily a deal: he will get a trust fund for life and all the money he needs to attend Harvard, and she will get into Princeton and likewise have all her expenses paid, if they both stick to the story that Lucas was at the orgy and Dylan wasn’t. They agree — earlier, during the date that fatal night, Lucas had told Emily that the way the world works you have to be willing to do anything, no matter how unscrupulous, to get ahead, and you’re a fool to think that will ever change (which is probably true but certainly is depressing) — until Lucas accidentally overturns the automatic carpet-sweeper with which Dylan and company keep the room clean and finds the memory card containing the unaltered version of the video. Unfortunately, either the card was already erased when Lucas found it or it is clandestinely erased by the woman administrator running the hearing — who doesn’t want to incur the wrath of Senator Whitman by finding his son guilty of anything — and it looks like Dylan will get away scot-free when Emily dramatically holds up her smartphone, on which she recorded Dylan offering her the bribe. (After watching the odd film The Good Student, which was made and supposedly took place in 2006 but none of whose high-school students owned either a computer or a cell phone, it was nice to see a film whose writer and director were actually aware of how today’s young people communicate with each other.) Dylan turns to them in a fury and says they’ve both destroyed himself for nothing, since his reputation is already so well protected he’ll never suffer any consequences (one can readily imagine him running for office himself 20 years later and tearing into his opponent for using a stupid high-school prank against him!), and Emily and Lucas face each other and an uncertain future. (My idea of a happy ending is they hook up and she relocates to Nebraska to be with him, forsaking the big bad urban ruling class for the healthier values of the heartland.)

 Restless Virgins is a story that hooks bigger issues than Messrs. Lapeyre and Cochran were aware of, yet their film has a refreshing honesty about just how firm the class barriers are in a so-called “classless society” like ours, and how F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said, “The rich are different from you and me” (and as a man who’d earned his way to relative affluence through his writing, and had married someone from a family with hereditary wealth who never let him forget the difference, he knew whereof he spoke when he said that and when he wrote The Great Gatsby) — and how C. Wright Mills documented that the rich are different from you and me because they’re trained to be different from birth: they’re given an education that trains them to rule over the rest of us and they live in a different culture that shapes their sense of what is important both personally and politically. I guess I didn’t think that a Lifetime TV-movie that was sold as a juicy bit of sexploitation would have so much to say about America’s classless pretensions and class realities, but Restless Virgins proved to be a lot more than just the two hours (less commercials) of good clean dirty fun I had expected!