Quite possibly Disney’s first portmanteau teen movie, Prom follows the intersecting stories of a dozen eager high school seniors and sophomores preparing for that all important graduation bash. Perky prom organizer Nova (Aimee Teegarden) is twice devastated, first when the object of her affection fails to ask her to prom, then when a fire destroys all her carefully crafted prom decorations. The principal coerces cynical loner Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell) into helping Nova save the prom and inevitably sparks fly between the surly bad boy and sunny good girl as they clash over the importance of the prom in their lives. Elsewhere, Jordan’s (Kiley Bunbury) dream of being crowned prom queen is tainted by a suspicion boyfriend Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) is cheating on her. Shy sophomore Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) loses his heart to the achingly lovely Simone (Danielle Campbell) not knowing she and Tyler are seeing each other on the side. May (Yin Chang) struggles telling boyfriend Justin (Jared Kusnitz) she is leaving to start college in New York. And poor, luckless Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) just can’t get a prom date, no matter how hard he tries.
Some critics and filmgoers, invariably of an older generation, are aghast at the mere existence of movies like Prom. There is a tendency to wax nostalgic over the yuppie teen fantasies of John Hughes, overlooking their occasional conservativism and MTV posturing, and forget how just ten years ago the genre was bogged down in the mean-spirited, though admittedly profitable, cycle of gross-out flicks that were arguably only a crude distillation of more challenging films like Heathers (1990). However, one could argue the new breed of Disney teen movies recapture an air of carefree, innocent joy unseen since the immediate post-war heyday of the MGM musical. They espouse sentiments unlikely to be shared by those who have outgrown such fantasies, people too jaded or sensible (depending on how you look at it) to remember when that perfect outfit, that perfect song, that perfect moment with that special someone seemed of earth-shattering importance.
Prom was given a critical drubbing for being seemingly sanitized, sugary nonsense, when in fact it is remarkably attuned to the fantasies and anxieties of a generation caught awkwardly between childhood and college-bound maturity. “For four years (high school) has a way of dividing us”, says Nova. “But for one night, one thing brings everyone together for one perfect moment.” Prom spins a charming, touchingly all-inclusive message: sporty kids, geeky kids, goths, over and under-achievers, the glamorous and the not so glamorous - all are embraced on this one night. It may not be high school as we remember it, but reflects high school as we might have wanted it to be. There is a charming moment where Lloyd and Lucas, having never met before, forge a brief but instant kinship based on their mutual need to seize the day. As one character says, the future is uncertain but for now faith and hope are enough. Friendships may falter, romances may not last, futures are unwritten, but after four years in the pressure cooker, by gosh these kids deserve their chance to get glam and get their groove on. Joe Nussbaum and screenwriter Katie Wech mythologize this cathartic, communal moment caught like a glittering bauble and wrapped in a great big bow. It is an adolescent dream, fragile, silly, but beautiful.
Nussbaum first made waves with his endearing short film spoof George Lucas in Love (1999) before making his feature debut with Sleepover (2004) and continuing down the teen movie path with Sydney White (2007), a reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Here he shoots with hand-held HD cameras capturing the intimacy of Katie Wech’s likeable script which juxtaposes big romantic gestures with eavesdropping on kids’ hopes and dreams. Not every subplot proves compelling, but an appealing cast of first-time actors and Disney stars bring enough vibrancy and warmth to ensure we don’t mind treading down a familiar path. Although Nova and Jesse’s relationship proves the most predictable, Wech throws in a handful of touching quirks to keep things interesting. Lloyd’s misguided attempts to land a date yield the biggest laughs, with the very likeable Nicholas Braun exuding the charm of a young John Cusack, while the Simone-Lucas story is heartbreaking in its emotional honesty with a climax sure to charm closet romantics everywhere.