Editor’s Note: The Preppie Connection opened in limited theatrical release on March 18, 2016.
Adapted true stories of the drug trade have produced either subversive, thought-provoking films, or pointless garbage only depicting how many parties its central kingpins throw. The pointless ones, very apparently, offer nothing of real significance, but the subversive ones always have some interesting, fresh angle they’re attacking their true stories from. So naturally, when something like this meets the indie genre, the final product is bound to be divisive. That’s where The Preppie Connection falls, a fictional retelling of the true events surrounding a student at a lavish prep school who, in 1984, smuggled $300,000 worth of pure cocaine into the US from Venezuela. In this version of the story, Venezuela is Colombia, that student is a lower-class loner named Toby, and indie up-and-comer Thomas Mann stars under the direction of second-time filmmaker Joseph Castelo.
From the opening scene, you can tell you’re in for a mega-independent indie movie.
From the opening scene, you can tell you’re in for a mega-independent indie movie. Narration is practically 100% of the sound design, present at most, if not all, times, and we follow a mellow teen encountering new surroundings. But even then, there’s a sense of intrigue present, always active. The camerawork is sharp and tightly-executed, the synth soundtrack/score smoothly advances us from scene to scene, and Thomas Mann is likable as ever, though it’s not immediately clear where any of that leads. Turns out, as a literal sequence of events, it leads to your standard rise-and-fall narrative, but beyond that (with some digging), it’s rich with relevance in theme and cinematic meat. After a while, the cinematography isn’t just crisp, it’s exploratory, suspenseful even, stocked with visual poetry. Toby simply discusses plans to sell his product, and empty space will populate the frame, expressing the sheer solitude these Preppies (privileged prep students) are surrounded by, dependent on their parent’s money, but alone otherwise. Even with each other, their connection always feels artificial, like an excuse to forget their lonesome existence, a system to keep themselves blind to that fact.
Toby is the odd man out in this group, as he’s of a lower economic standing (only at this prep school thanks to a scholarship), and we can feel his exclusion throughout. There’s a scene where he’s on a bus with the others headed toward a vacation, and he makes eye contact with his crush Alex (Lucy Fry), across from him, as she’s sleeping with her far richer boyfriend under the cover of a blanket. The look on Toby’s face isn’t one of jealousy, rather dread, burdened with the knowledge that he’s not truly a part of their machine. There’s also a bit of a haunting scene near the end featuring a Preppie rushing to a payphone at the discovery that she may be busted for drugs, calling her father. But as the receptionist who answers tells her, he’s in a meeting, unable to talk. The following shot lingers on her face obscured by the edge of the frame, as she realizes how alone she really is. This isn’t a film that discusses the sensation of realizing your youthful blindness is a defense mechanism, it’s a film that tells you a small part of its statements through Toby’s narration and depicts the rest visually.
The ending and final few narrated lines delivered by Mann convey how absolute such crime’s consequences are. And, even then, the ending doesn’t limit itself to being solely about crime and punishment.
Toby’s struggle is, ironically, using lower-class means to make his friends see him as more than lower-class, which really advances him nowhere in their eyes. That’s a truth he begins to see with time, and a truth he rejects, making arrogant mistake after arrogant mistake until he brings everything around his group crumbling down. And don’t take this to be a film that excuses drug trafficking as acceptable for the sake of empathy, no. The ending and final few narrated lines delivered by Mann convey how absolute such crime’s consequences are. And, even then, the ending doesn’t limit itself to being solely about crime and punishment. It’s one final incessant reminder to Toby that the progress he’s made over the last 90 minutes was a complete and utter lie. Just as well, it’s one final compelling reminder to the audience that privilege isn’t just a lifestyle, it’s a magnetic facade that draws those it surrounds into moral and literal isolation.
The Preppie Connection is a bold film, unafraid to be lost on some of its audience, but determined to resonate with others. And, it sure resonated with me.
The Preppie Connection, based on true events, features fine camerawork and a deceptively simple rise-and-fall narrative that, with a little digging, reveals a rich and relevant film.