A dramatized real-life scandal of 1980s prep-school drug dealing plays like a tepid compilation of fictive cliches in “The Preppie Connection.” Joseph Castelo’s third feature stars Thomas Mann (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) as a working-class scholarship student whose attempts to fit in with the brahmin youth at an elite preparatory institution somehow lead to cocaine-running directly from the slums of Bogota, Colombia. Unconvincingly presented in a way that belies the factual basis of a case that won national notoriety at the time, the film will make serviceable small-screen fodder, but lacks the deeper insight or distinguishing directorial style that might have tempted arthouse distributors.
Hitting predictable notes head-on from the moment it begins with a framing-device crisis and the protagonist’s voiceover narration, the story starts in earnest in September 1984. New Haven townie teen Toby Hammel (Mann) bows to the will of his ambitious mother (Amy Hargreaves) and begins attending tony Sage Hall, where her classmates are overwhelmingly Richie Riches flown in from gated communities elsewhere. As a lowly “day student,” he’s quickly subjected to none-too-good-natured hazing, with only Colombian ambassador’s son Fidel (Guillermo Arribas) a nerdy enough fellow outsider to befriend him.
Much as he resents their snobbery, however, Toby can’t help being attracted by the social magnetism of the school’s leading “preppies,” particularly brash ringleader Ellis (Logan Huffman) and his beautiful g.f. Alex (Lucy Fry), representing the moneyed elite of Manhattan and North Carolina, respectively. To impress them, he manages to score some pot, then cocaine. He’s granted provisional acceptance into the clique when he takes the fall for a campus drug bust that should have gotten them all suspended. Desperate to keep up his new status, Toby talks his way into visiting Fidel’s family, who happen to live in the cocaine capital of the world. He neglects to inform his friend until after the fact that his real mission was smuggling drugs home, which, rather miraculously, he manages to get away with despite no very sophisticated plan to elude customs.
Of course, livin’ la vida loca proves taxing as well as dangerous, with return trips south eventually climaxing in an ill-fated one on which Alex insists on tagging along. But despite the opening “inspired by true events” tag (duly ballasted by closing-credits vintage TV interview clips with a real-life protagonist notably more movie-star handsome than the pic’s lead), “The Preppie Connection” goes from superficial to increasingly improbable.
Playing a protagonist even more generically defined than his stock wisecracking male Juno in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Mann doesn’t persuade us that Toby has the brains or chutzpah to pull off as much illegal monkey business as he does. Nor do the scenes in Colombia (shot in Puerto Rico) feel authentic or threatening. But then, the pic doesn’t have the budget or resourcefulness to evoke the high-Reagan-era ’80s as it strains to, either. Even the soundtrack is just a vague approximation of New Wave dance pop, not the real thing.
What aims for a mix of “Less Than Zero” and “Midnight Express” instead plays as a lukewarm teen drama of one-dimensional character types, encased in a flaccid thriller framework that stubbornly fails to build any tension. Within the script’s stereotypical bounds, the performances and design contributions are adequate. But nothing here lends real urgency or personality to a story that by its very nature hardly seemed at risk of feeling so derivative, or unmemorable.