So loosely inspired by actual events as to qualify for practical purposes as fiction, “Restless Virgins” is nevertheless an unexpectedly compelling look at the caste system, cruelty and casual sex at a privileged prep school. Even a Hollywood ending can’t entirely sour this well-made drama, featuring strong central performances by “Switched at Birth’s” Vanessa Marano and Max Lloyd-Jones. Lifetime has been laboring to get younger, which explains the salacious title and subject matter. Still, examining teenagers who have essentially divorced sex from emotion should carry its own cautionary resonance among parents as well.
Based on a 2007 book about Milton Academy in Massachusetts, names and details have been changed, but the backbone remains. The movie opens with hints of a sex scandal being investigated by administrators, flashing back to tell a lurid tale that recalls such true stories as the Spur Posse’s “sex for points” scandal in the 1990s, as well as the hierarchical and tribunal aspects of “Scent of a Woman.”
Emily (Marano) is an outsider, a brainy girl working on the school newspaper with fellow misfits. As such, she’s subject to teasing and ridicule by a clique of lacrosse players who boast about their sexual exploits, led by Dylan (“Desperate Housewives’ ” Charlie Carver), who’s the son of a billionaire senator (Timothy Busfield, in a blink-and-miss-him cameo), and behaves as if he’s indestructible.
Within that group is Luke (Lloyd-Jones), a kid from Nebraska with Ivy League ambitions but not the financial means to fulfill them. Pulled along by Dylan and his band, he begins a surprisingly sweet courtship with Emily, but due to peer pressure, keeps pulling back.
Written by Andrew Cochran and directed by Jason Lapeyre, “Virgins” contains surprisingly sharp social commentary, painting a grim picture of rich kids born on third base who act like they’ve hit a triple. When Luke questions whether they might be going too far with their escapades, Dylan dismisses his concerns and killjoy attitude as being “so middle-class.”
Ultimately, the movie turns on Dylan’s decision to leave the school in a blaze of glory by filming a sex tape to leave to underclassmen, which of course will go public, raising questions about who will pay the price for this indiscretion — and whether those whose parents are among key donors will be held accountable.
“Restless Virgins” works, mostly, because of Marano’s vulnerability — you genuinely feel her pain when she says, “Why was nobody ever interested in me?” — as well as Lloyd-Jones’ conflicted Midwesterner and Carver’s positively venal ringleader. It’s only too bad the movie can’t maintain the nerve of its opening acts in the last few reels.
With the movie and the series “Preachers’ Daughters” premiering within days of each other, Lifetime’s strategy is about as subtle as the title. Still, it’s possible to approach a task with style, even if you’re just taking out the trash.
(Movie; Lifetime, Sat. March 9, 8 p.m.)
Cast: Vanessa Marano, Max Lloyd-Jones, Charlie Carver, Timothy Busfield.
Filmed in Vancouver by Front Street Pictures. Executive producer, Michael Roiff; supervising producers, Allen Lewis, Dawn Knight; producer, Harvey Kahn; director, Jason Lapeyre; writer, Andrew Cochran; based on the book by Abigail Jones, Marissa Miley; camera, Adam Sliwinski; production designer, Renee Read; editor, Gordon Rempel; music, Matthew Rogers; casting, Sunday Boling, Meg Morman, Jackie Lind. 120 MIN.