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Prep schools are easy targets (and settings) for teen dramas because they augment an ingrained inferiority complex towards the rich and popular (“Oh, those crazy prep schools; privileged dens of inequity where money solves all of your problems, and lacrosse is king! Will they ever learn?”). However, like Restless Virgin‘s de facto heroine Emily (Vanessa Marano) illustrates, there’s also a complicated relationship between the haves and have nots that leans heavily on fascination, hatred and a good dose of jealousy.
Restless Virgins is Lifetime’s latest original movie, based (very) loosely on the Milton Academy sex scandal of 2005, in which the Boston area prep school was dragged into the limelight after it was discovered some of their students were involved in behavior that culminated in a sexual act involving an underage girl and older members of the school hockey team. Several years later, a look at the incident was turned into a bestseller by Milton graduates Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, and it is their consideration of the events that Andy Cochran adapted for Lifetime.
The initial set-up is familiar: scholarship kid and newspaper editor geek Emily is ostracized by the rich and beautiful around her at Sutton Academy, and in her senior year decides to make a statement about the school’s sexual politics by writing an article titled, at one point, “Sluts Prevail.” Her mission is to expose how girls are expected to trade sexual favors as currency to gain status and popularity — something Emily doesn’t do, and is therefore shunned.
Emily gets distracted from her quest though when she renews her crush on golden boy Lucas (Max Lloyd-Jones), a transfer student from Nebraska who, because of his good looks and demeanor, is accepted in with the most popular boys, including the state senator’s son Dylan (Charles Carver) and his goons Cotton (yes, Cotton — played by Jedidiah Goodacre) and Sam (Zach Martin). Pretty early in the narrative it’s revealed that Lucas is actually a virgin — apparently the biggest of sins at Sutton — and after Lucas and Emily have a drunken (interrupted) hookup that is caught on a security camera, lecherous Dylan gets an idea.
The remainder of Restless Virgins plays out around the buildup and fallout from Dylan’s arrogant and nefarious plot, and pits Emily and Lucas as hesitant allies who must unite to fight against the power of money in the name of What Is Right. The problem is, both Emily and Lucas get caught up in their own selfish desires, and the story becomes more about their relationship than the scandal. The school also ends up being just as corrupt as its students, but it’s not commented on. In fact, most of the interesting issues are passed over, the most unfortunate of which is that while Emily seems at first angry at the boys who have built this culture of sexual favors, she is the one who throws a fellow female, and a friend, under the bus in a very public and humiliating way. Where is the victory in that?
There really aren’t any winners in Restless Virgins, nor are there ultimately many virgins. Despite that, the movie never really “goes there,” and I couldn’t help but recall the power of the complicated and in-depth portrayal of this kind of culture in the 1996 Frontline documentary The Lost Children of Rockdale County, which chronicled how a syphilis outbreak in a wealthy Atlanta suburb began to unravel high schoolers’ sex parties that were far more graphic than anything Restless Virgins shows us. The idea of this kind of behavior is nothing new, but Restless Virgins doesn’t add anything to the discussion, nor does it really make things titillating enough to spark one of its own. Instead, it just cashes in on the keywords “prep school scandal” without doing much with it.
It’s not all about spoiled brats with absentee parents trying to humiliate each other, though — the dialogue between Emily and Lucas has the feeling of the realistic, casual banter between two high schoolers. Maybe it’s because those two actors both appear in the ABC Family series Switched at Birth and do have a genuine familiarity. But on her own, the character of Emily never really succeeds at being that Daria-lite figure (or Lindsay Lohan‘s character from Mean Girls) that she seems to be modeled after. Still, there are a few witty lines amid many clunkers, and despite some confusing character digressions and a large side order of cheese, some legitimately cute moments (like a date at a carnival and a kiss in the rain).
Restless Virgins seems unsure about whether it can or should go as far as the wanton sexuality of Gossip Girl, or if it needs to stay closer to more sanitized ABC Family fare. Ultimately, it ends up muddled. There is one subtle statement though that does shine through: in this age of digital accountability, nothing goes unnoticed, so nothing goes unpunished. That is the biggest lesson to be learned here, and it’s certainly not a bad one. For a Lifetime movie (of which I’ve seen many), Restless Virgins is fine, I just wish that with this particular story it went further. Maybe it’s just me. After all, as Dylan says (channeling Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess), “I’m tired of this negativity. It’s so middle class.”
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