It’s the highlight of high school for some, just another dance to others. Perhaps for students these days, it’s simply another item on the list of events cancelled due to the pandemic.
It’s none other than the prom.
Director Ryan Murphy takes on telling the story of this symbol of the teen experience in his latest The Prom, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name. The plot follows Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) after her small-town school board votes to cancel her high school prom upon Emma voicing her wishes to go to the dance with her girlfriend. Emma’s and her principal Mr. Hawkins’ (Keegan-Michael Key) fight against the decision reaches the Internet and catches the attention of washed up Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), Barry Glickman (James Corden), Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), who decide to take up Emma’s cause as a means of boosting their own public images.
Equal parts comedy, musical, and all-around fun, The Prom brings exactly the bright and hopeful themes of love and acceptance (and a fantastic looking school dance) that high schoolers have found themselves searching for in a year like no other.
Each member of the all-star cast shines, but newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman might just steal the show. Her portrayal of Emma is practically flawless, as she masterfully portrays the duality of the thick shell Emma has to put on while dealing with the ignorant jocks’ homophobic comments as well as the broken girl underneath it who is trying to cope with the pain of how her local culture rejects her sexuality. Beyond the personality of Emma, Pellman also delivers beautiful vocal performances throughout the film both soloistically in songs like “Just Breathe” and “Unruly Heart” as well as with the ensemble in songs such as “It’s Time to Dance.”
Pellman’s co-stars also give exceptional performances, especially in the film’s second act. A victory of both the acting and the writing of the movie reveals itself in this second act, where most characters show true development and growth, a refreshing element to see in a comedic genre where characters tend to remain static throughout the entirety of the film. Audiences get to see Kidman, whose character Angie Dickinson has minimal lines in the first act, become a source of inspiration and a friend for Emma as the two attempt to overcome the obstacles brought on by hosting an inclusive prom in a less than accepting community. Audiences get to watch tearfully as Corden emotionally portrays Barry Glickman facing his inner conflict of whether or not to call his mom after so many years of feeling unwanted because of his own struggles with his sexuality. And audiences get to revel in finally seeing Streep break down the egotistical facade Dee Dee Allen so long held on to, and instead face her past relationship that left her scarred. Each of the characters that were fun but simple in the first act transform into ones that are genuine and complex.
The acting and script are met with outstanding choices in lighting and set design, which make the film stand apart from average teen prom stories. The opening scenes go from a bit gloomy and ominous to colorful and bright in a matter of moments as audiences begin at a school board meeting in an auditorium and then are whisked away to the hustle and bustle of New York City. The dull mood of the board meeting doesn’t have to be spoken about, it is clearly evident in the dim lights and darker hues of the room. But the dazzling city lights and color palette of glistening pinks, golds, blues and greens from the signs promise hope and excitement is to come. And that’s only the first couple of minutes. As the film progresses, each scene takes place in what would seem to be a perfectly average high school, hotel or home, but are made enticing by the blends of colors that tie the spaces together.
Similarly, the costume design compliments the characters and storyline wonderfully. Outfits worn by Emma and her classmates could be seen in the hallways of just about any high school, but it is clear that just the right amount of attention to detail was put into decisions like layering denim, choosing a cardigan over a sweater, and finding dresses with the perfect amount of shimmer. The adult characters have their own unique styles too, revealing pieces of their personalities or moods so that they don’t have to be vocalized. Dee Dee and Angie’s styles of bright solid colors reflect their bold nature, while Barry’s use of patterned prints show his quirky side. When they shift to wear more neutral tones it is evident that they are stepping back from these outgoing sides of themselves, perhaps to focus on another character, or to face uncomfortable situations in which it is harder to be brave.
Along with the film’s visual appeal, its score and musical number make it entertaining in terms of sound as well. The instrumentation mirrors the Broadway roots of the story, as a lively orchestra accompanies the songs. From vivacious show tunes like “It’s Not About Me” and “Barry is Going to Prom” to more contemporary songs with scaled back instrumentations like “Just Breathe” and the reprise of “Tonight Belongs to You,” each musical number has personality and a sentimental touch that will have you tapping your toe at the very least. And that’s not even mentioning the choreography. While some of the musical scenes such as “Unruly Heart” rely on facial expressions and more subtle cues to tell the story, they are balanced out by the “zazz” of numbers like “Changing Lives” as dancers fill the space and perform exciting choreography.
But be warned if breaking out in over-the-top dances and flashy show tunes are not your cup of tea. This film is nothing if not your classic musical full of serendipitous numbers that some may see as interruptions to the plot. The Prom is also quirky in itself, likely as a result of the ensemble cast of different mediums coming together to make a cohesive production. Blending together a cast of Broadway actors by trade with names more recognizable to late night talk show viewers or comedy fans makes for an interesting combination of personalities and talents within the project. This dynamic isn’t necessarily a weakness, but it may be difficult for viewers to watch the first act of the film and feel like they’re truly watching the ensemble cast acting as one, well, ensemble. It may be easier instead to remain focused on Streep and anticipate her stealing the show, or let your eyes wander to Corden to see if he’ll crack another joke (or be able to maintain that American accent for two whole hours). It is not until the second act that the energy between the actors seems to flow better, but perhaps this is also a result of the change in the dynamic of the script which allows each character to develop towards learning to work together towards a common goal.
Overall, it is not the fact that you might catch James Corden’s British accent sneaking in on occasion or a cheesy line that makes you cringe for a moment that will make The Prom memorable. These minor flaws are more than outweighed by the tear-jerking moments and inspiring anthems of acceptance that make up The Prom. The film is most successful in painting us a picture of what our own lives could look like if we set aside our biases and misconceptions and celebrated one another instead. Once this happens, there is also a beauty in working towards a common goal. For the students of the film, it is their prom. But what is it for us outside of the walls of high school? The film begs us to picture the same joy of the dance within the contexts of our local, national and global communities and the space we all share. Perhaps the finale number “It’s Time to Dance” gives us the best call to action saying, “Build a prom for everyone … Make people see how the world could one day be.”
The Prom is rated PG-13 and is streaming on Netflix.
If you enjoyed The Prom, you may also want to check out …
La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle, this beautiful film tells the story of struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) as the two fall in love in Los Angeles, a city of stars. Full of enchanting musical numbers and a set design just as romantic as the plot, La La Land is sure to pull on your heartstrings and make you want to dance too.
Elizabeth Dyer is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl