A gifted teenager from a working-class family gets accepted into a fancy prep school, with scholarship, without ever having applied. His mother has certain pretensions you see, and wants to see her family move up in the world. So she did the applying, and the accepting, for him (her depression and classic guilt trips assure compliance). But Tobey (Thomas Mann) knows he doesn’t belong there – “Before I even started Sage, I knew he was finished.”
A Columbian exchange student lets him know how to fit in (copious amounts of Lacoste go a long way – it’s 1984) and a pretty blonde girl, Alex, (Lucy Fry) gives him the motivation to stay. She’s in love with the preppiest, poppiest collar of them all though, so that spells trouble. How to get into the inner circle? Well, keeping in mind it’s 1984, Tobey figures it out pretty quickly: cocaine. Lots and lots of blow.
This movie is actually based on a true story of how a high school kid smuggled $300k of uncut cocaine into the US (remember that conveniently Columbian friend he made on the first day of school?).
You may have cut school once or twice in your day. What kind of shenanigans did you get up to? Pot? Sex? Soap operas? This kid flies to a foreign country and makes friends with a drug cartel. You can probably guess that things kind of get out of hand. The reason to watch this movie is to find out two things:
- Did he have fun while it lasted?
- Was it all worth it?
I really liked Thomas Mann in Me and Earl & The Dying Girl, and again in The Stanford Prison Experiment (he even popped up in Welcome to Me); this kid is someone to keep your eyes on. He’s excellent in this, effortless.
Director Joseph Castelo went to boarding school himself in the 80s, and remembers hearing about this story. Ultimately, it broke on 60 Minutes and then the whole country knew, and were aghast. Reflecting on his own experience, Castelo says “I was looking back on many of my own experiences and my own feelings of being an outsider in a boarding school. I wasn’t from a wealthy family and I was experiencing culture shock when I went to boarding school, just like Tobey experiences culture shock. You know you very much want to be a part of those circles, and it’s like any kid in high school, you need to figure out what’s the way in, how do I get into that inner circle, how do I become a part of this system that you have suddenly been thrust into and either you rebel against it or you work at being a part of it, and in a way, Tobey did both which is interesting. It made me think about my own impulses and my own thoughts and feelings when I was in boarding school. It really was cathartic. I really did feel like I worked through a lot of my own life.”
Sam Bisbee, the film’s music composer, adds his own personal touch, having worked and toured during the 80s. He says he “jumped at the chance” to work on the film because “the world and universe of the film is the same universe I grew up in, at almost the same time as the film’s setting. In the mid 1980’s I was a boarding school student at a New England prep school, and this was the time when I fell in love with music (I, also, clearly remember when the real life scandal happened at Choate).”
This film debuted just a few weeks ago at the Hamptons Film Festival, and was an excellent choice for the New Hampshire Film Festival as well. It’s not your average coming of age story, but it’s funny how even a rags to riches high school drug kingpin can still feel relatable and familiar. Maybe it has something to do with the intimacy of the film – it feels like we’re very close to Tobey. We know what he’s thinking before he says the words. We’re really inside his head, but there’s a cinematic wash, an 80s patina if you will, that still gives the movie an interesting sense of style.
I really enjoyed this one, and I’m pretty sure you will too. It’s playing at the St. Lawrence International Film Festival this weekend – Saturday October 24th in Potsdam, where it is receiving the inaugural Empire State Award, for excellence in filmmaking for either a New York Story or a New York Filmmaker. I’ll keep you posted on its wide release date – this is an independent movie that deserves to find its audience.