REVIEW: Sweet, Nonthreatening Prom Wears Its Crown Modestly
On a recent Saturday, Disney held a special screening of Prom, an off-the-rack omnibus story centered on the sacred, American, adolescent rite of passage. I realized quickly that I was a little underdressed and way over-aged for the occasion. "Have any of you guys been to prom yet?" a publicist asked the audience, which had been carefully stocked with high schoolers. An unfamiliar pop star and the son of Sean Combs ("heir to the 'Diddy' empire" was his terrifying billing) were on hand to declaim the event's sponsor (a teen site) and urge the audience to blow up Prom on Twitter and Facebook. Some of the kids were sizing me up. I knew the least cool among them could still ice me with a look. You might leave the jungle, but you never forget its rules.
In fact the film that followed the of-the-moment hard sell was a modest example of a formula that hasn't changed in decades. Not one kilojoule past perfectly competent, Prom has sweetness, nonthreatening conflict, and enough personality to distance it from the chilling anodyne of Disney's television vehicles. At the center of the story is Nova (Aimee Teegarden), a Nordic, symmetrical blonde who happens to look exactly like my high school's prom queen (and my country's Miss Teen Canada; sigh). Nova's only interested in the crown so far as it's harvested on time and with not a zirconia out of place. She's the prom planning committee president and the pride of her working-class parents. She also harbors breathless ideas about prom being the one time in a high schooler's career where the velvet ropes come down and everyone mixes together in the name of alcohol poisoning and punching any outstanding V-cards.
I'm not sure how an event that culminates in crowning a king and queen could be construed as a great equalizer, but something had to fill those opening minutes of narration. Doleful nerd Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) sees things a little more clearly: "The Olympics of high school" and "that soul-crushing mistress" are a couple of his takes on the taffeta pageant. Lloyd is determined to get a date, despite not having spoken to most of the girls at the school; Nova is counting on her companion in asexual striving (Jonathan Keltz) to serve as pro forma escort; Rolo (Joe Adler), space cadet first class, swears a random Canadian is crossing the border for the occasion; longtime couple Justin (Jared Kusnitz) and Mei (Yin Chang) are a no-brainer, though college-bound separation looms; football hero Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) and benevolent teen queen Jordan (Kylie Bunbury) are good to go, as long as a bimbo eruption doesn't crack their homecoming couple façade.
For the first stretch the biggest issue any of these girls face is when and how a boy is going to ask them to the big school dance. Again, sound the social revolution alarm. When prom headquarters is burned down, fine-ass local delinquent Jesse (Thomas McDonell) is assigned to help Nova re-do the decorations on time. Teegarden bears up well while performing the stations of this particular, glitter-crusted cross: Sparring with the insufferably cool/cute loner; wondering if your piping-bag boyfriend is gay or just really focused on himself; trying on dresses while the slightly more sufferable loner looks on.
Newcomer Katie Wech's script manages to move through all the expected paces without cloying the audience or compromising her characters, and director Joe Nussbaum (Sydney White) keeps the pace tight, adding bits of comedic business as scenes trail off -- small touches that films like this need for distinguishing momentum. Hand-held camera work adds dimension here and there, and though Katy Perry and her foghorn anthems have their inevitable moment, songs by Neon Trees, Girl In A Coma, and Passion Pit are decidedly outside the Disney catalogue. A calculated move in itself, of course, but one tires of keeping track.
Excepting the sweet sideline about a pair of sophomore culture dorks (Nolan Sotillo and Cameron Monaghan) whose bond is tested by a wayward dream girl (Danielle Campbell), a couple of the subplots feel less like ensemble work than inter-scene filler, particularly that involving Mei's protracted meltdown about preferring her dream school to the one she and her boyfriend planned. Give me a real dilemma, like a pretty blonde's dad freaking out about a secretly righteous, motorbike-riding, daughter-corrupting nightmare and blowing her chances for a perfect "forever night" prom. Anyway, that's the one that works best, which is to say well enough to have that final kiss send a little flag of joy and affirmation running up your spine. Just let it fly.