*½/**** Image A Sound B Extras C+
starring Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonnell, De'Vaughn Nixon, Danielle Campbell
screenplay by Katie Welch
directed by Joe Nussbaum
by Bill Chambers Prom--not inconsequently promoted as "Disney Prom"--is an ensemble piece I'd love to call Altman-esque, but its major influence appears to be episodic television, specifically the seriocomedies one finds on Disney- owned and operated ABC Family. Much like that weekly dose of "Greek" or "The Secret Life of the American Teenager", Prom features multifold, compartmentalized storylines, a cast that meets the minimum requirements for forming a model U.N., an unyielding soundtrack geared towards dictating emotions and/or spurring iTunes downloads, and subject matter that alternates between light comedy and light controversy. Its ending even feels like that of a season finale--enough to tide viewers over during the summer, perhaps, but hardly the soaring stuff of Chuck Workman montages. Audiences seemed to sense that Prom was just going to place a big-screen surcharge on the type of thing they'd normally watch for free, and without any larger box-office incentives (3-D, a certified heartthrob, a pre-established character), the film barely recouped its paltry $10M budget.
If there's an "A" plot in Prom, it's the hesitant romance between one-woman prom committee Nova (Aimee Teegarden) and bad boy Jesse (Thomas McDonnell), the latter of whom is indentured to the former after a shed containing all the prom decorations burns down. Jesse didn't start the fire, though: he's a scapegoat for the real culprit, Tyler (De'Vaughn Nixon), captain of the lacrosse team--why the sudden surge in lacrosse's popularity among fictional adolescents?--and a shoo-in for prom king. Tyler is two-timing girlfriend Jordan (Kylie Bunbury) with the much-younger Simone (Danielle Campbell), which is how this movie about graduating seniors comes to devote a subplot to a sophomore, Simone's age-appropriate admirer Lucas (Nolan Sotillo). Meanwhile, Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) scrambles for a date to the titular bash, G-rated stoner Rolo (Joe Adler)--meaning he talks slow and has the munchies purely for comic effect--boasts of a lover who's conspicuously absent, and Mei (Yin Chang) frets over an acceptance letter from the Parsons School for Design (as seen on "Project Runway") that has thrown a crimp in her plan to attend the University of Michigan with long-time boyfriend Justin (Jared Kusnitz). I must take issue with the acrostic Justin makes out of the word "PROM" while redundantly asking Mei to said event: why would "m" stand for "University of Michigan" instead of, y'know, her name? It'd be a wonderfully monstrous show of passive-aggression if he knew anything about the acceptance letter, but since he doesn't, it's just a Sitcom 101 Oblivious Guilt Trip.*
Justin's overblown proposal kicks off a montage of similarly extravagant gestures as guys pour their hearts and souls as well as the skills of production designer Mark White into getting girls to go to the prom with them. The pageantry of this sequence struck me as more grotesque than cute, but maybe it's a cultural thing. (Like homecoming and Thanksgiving, prom is one of those uniquely American institutions we Canadians imitate but don't necessarily get.) Nevertheless, the invitation Simone later receives from Tyler is genuinely clever and flushes the sadomasochistic subtext of this bizarre, possibly-Hollywoodized ritual to the surface. Left on Simone's porch one morning are a little rock and a giant boulder. The former has "yes" written on it and the latter "no," and she is instructed to bring the one that reflects her answer to Tyler the following day.
That's about the only bright spot in Simone's arc, alas. While it's always hard to watch a Kevin Arnold pursue his Winnie Cooper, there's something exceptionally cringe-inducing about Lucas's crush on Simone, and it took me a while to figure out what that something is. Already cuckolding him by virtue of keeping Tyler backburnered, Simone accompanies Lucas to a barbecue, where she makes the classic boy move of teaching him a few guitar chords. She stands him up for a study date and placates him with hard-to-get tickets for a concert by his favourite band. She stands him up for that, then shows up in the parking lot afterwards to pledge her love, at which point Lucas may as well hand her his testicles on a plate. Selective gender reversals are one thing, but this is a complete and total emasculation that makes it impossible for either sex to respect Lucas and thus take any kind of pleasure in his eventual success. As for Tyler, it's a little dubious that the only black male in Prom is an arsonist, a cheater, and a possible statutory rapist. I don't think the movie's racist, exactly--I think it's probably colour-blind to a fault. The way to avoid committing this sort of faux pas in the future is to start casting more than one black dude.
Not that anybody in the picture gets away clean, per se. Tall, lanky Braun, who took over the role originated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the short-lived TV spin-off of 10 Things I Hate About You, was clearly cast for his passing resemblance to John Cusack (the character's moniker--Lloyd--says it all), but the filmmakers err in making Lloyd so bleakly desperate that you still expect to see the football kicked out from under him, Charlie Brown-style, during his understated moment of triumph. Unfortunately, Braun's similarities to Cusack do not extend to the latter's roguish charm; he's such a naturally self-effacing actor that the humiliations visited upon him in this film are nigh unpalatable. Speaking of ersatz talent, as fake Johnny Depps go, McDonnell has better skin and a cleaner cut than Skeet Ulrich, but the role is paper-thin and he doesn't do anything especially compelling with it. And while the 21-year-old Teegarden does a good job of channelling her inner teenage girl by sometimes phrasing a statement in the form of a question?, it's almost entirely due to the conviction with which she insisted that she was no mere "blonde with big tits" in Scre4m (hers was one of the few deaths in that movie with a tickle of pathos) that I sensed any there there. It doesn't help that Nova's virtually unplayable, her list of offscreen achievements--class president, valedictorian, yadda yadda yadda--belying her monomaniacal focus on prom and her distinct lack of suitors (not even Lloyd hits on her) calling for an actress with considerably less...how to put this...curb appeal. They don't even try to downplay her voluptuousness with nerd glasses!
But Prom is by no means a hateful film and could be said to have redeeming qualities. Slackly paced, as if the heads and tails of shots hadn't sloughed off as they almost naturally do, the picture is oddly effective at conveying the state of limbo that asserts itself at the end of a schoolyear, particularly that final year of high school. It counters its predictability by showing surprising restraint in resolving its very own Chekhov's Gun (a line about an expensive necklace that would go with Nova's prom dress), and, Cusack and Depp doppelgängers notwithstanding, it doesn't get mired in the '80s nostalgia that tends to infect today's teen comedies, depriving the current generation of a cinema that is recognizably theirs. Alas, the film will not stir many wistful feelings in older viewers, though a closing-credits tag for the Princess Project, a kind venture that provides prom dresses to girls who can't afford them, warmed the cockles of my heart.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shot using the Alexa camera, ARRI's much-hyped foray into the HD market, Prom arrives on Blu-ray from Disney in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. Although the film is almost counterintuitively diffuse and earth-toned, eschewing the stark, poppy hues of a "Glee" or a High School Musical to deliver something that suggests high-end "Dawson's Creek", the image on this disc yields strong definition, exquisite shadow detail, and warm colours, however muted. The Alexa allows DP Byron Shah to take a lot of bold chances with natural light that are destined to go unappreciated by the movie's core audience. Music demonstrates excellent presence in the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, but the mix proper is limited and unimaginative, with a dialogue channel that sounds curiously compressed.
A blessedly slim helping of extras begins with "Last Chance Lloyd" (10 mins., HD), a for-masochists-only compilation of rejections that didn't make the final cut. "Putting on Prom" (6 mins., HD) is your standard circle-jerk making-of (I laughed at a description of the film as "authentic" therein), while the "Blooper Reel" (3 mins., HD) is predictably painful. Director Joe Nussbaum, producer Justin Springer, and Springer's girlish nosering host a selection of "Deleted Scenes" (8 mins., HD) containing at least two elisions that might've improved the final product, one of which brings Tyler's and Jesse's worlds together in a gratifyingly complex way. A heavy helping of HiDef music videos--for "Not Your Birthday" (by Allstar Weekend), "Your Surrender" (Neon Trees), "Time Stand" (Moon, whose lead singer is McDonnell), "We Could Be Anything" (Lucas himself, Nolan Sotillo), "I'll Be Yours" (Those Dancing Days), and "Come On, Let's Go" (Girl in a Coma)--plus the ubiquitous Timon & Pumbaa 3D Blu-ray demo and previews for The Muppets, Cars 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Disney's African Cats, Shake It Up, and the Prom soundtrack round out the platter. Prom's retail DVD is also included in this combo pack. I'm sad that Disney felt the need to replace their evocative poster art (a barefoot lass clutching a pair of heels) with a generic cast photo for home video. Originally published: September 7, 2011.
*Justin and Mei are one of those weirdly asexual couples who mate for the life at the start of high school. To Prom's credit, you don't see this archetype on screen too often, and although it was never gonna happen in a Disney flick, for argument's sake a lesser movie would've made their big dilemma be whether or not to fuck after prom. return