This review was originally published on Spout April 28, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.
The very effective and original elements of this week’s tween drama deserve praise. There’s a whole cast of well-written supporting characters, played by talented (and actually teenage) actors. There’s a nice freshness to its earnest (if kind of prude) optimism, which reels you in despite your preconceptions. Yet still, “Prom” is the kind of movie that makes you wish you could have sat in on the original studio pitch meeting. Not that I know anything about the inner workings of Disney’s film division, but the impression I got while watching the finished product was that someone had had a great idea for a hyperlink narrative, one with a number of likable characters and inventive subplots, but was told by an executive that it wouldn’t work without a central, common story that has proven to entertain in the past.
This raises an important point about the great number of new films geared at the adolescent demographic that re-hash already overdone material. I’m reminded of “The Roommate,” which was essentially “Single White Female” for teenagers that don’t know “Single White Female.” There’s a lot of complaining these days about how remakes spell the death of cinema, but I don’t think that’s true. A remake on its own is not problematic, especially if it enriches or adds to the prior work. I loved “Scream 4,” for example. But the trouble with “Prom” is not that simple. It’s not a remake or a reboot, or even inspired by any single prior movie. It just happens to have a primary romance that is entirely unoriginal and dully predictable, which can’t be fixed no matter how creative the filmmakers are with everything else on the screen. Yet in the context of its target audience, mostly unfamiliar with the amorous tangles of the Brat Pack and the Valley Girls of the '90s, should it even matter?
Aimee Teegarden is Nova Prescott, the chair of the prom committee who has been working for months to make sure their “Starry Night” themed event will go over flawlessly. Yet tragically the shed holding all their completed decorations burns down due to some unfortunate romantic negligence. Her whole committee bails on her, so the principal, in good cliché disciplinarian fashion, assigns the school’s dreamy bad boy, Jesse (Thomas McDonnell), to help her rebuild everything.
And oh, how it turns out exactly as you would expect it to. The two are in essence the leads of "10 Things I Hate About You," but without any of Julia Stiles' edginess or Heath Ledger's charisma (thanks to Anne Thompson for pointing out this obvious comparison that somehow slipped my mind all week). They hate each other at first, but by working together, and through the magic of the teen drama, love blossoms. He’s really only a delinquent because his father left when he was a kid, and in true ironic fashion he only skips his classes in order to pick up his little brother at school while his mother works her fingers to the bone at the diner. With one shake of his perfectly conditioned hair it’s as if all obstacles have been overcome in the name of their young love, except for Nova’s disapproving father, whose objections are needed to set up the third act dramatic climax.
"Prom"'s failure to excite and entertain with its protagonists drove me crazy, because almost everything else is well-crafted and somewhat new. Here’s a film with wonderful supporting characters: Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) and his buddy Corey (Cameron Monaghan) have some quirky dialogue that reminds you of a Diablo Cody script (but with more realistic characters). Simone (Danielle Campbell), on whom Lucas has an enormous crush, is a confused but self-actualized young woman -- she teaches him guitar as a romantic gesture, which is somewhat refreshing. There’s also Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) who tries to emotionally manipulate both his girlfriend (Kylie Bunbury) and Simone, but more than anything else that just gives us someone to root against.
There’s even effort put into making them all seem real. None of this casting 20-somethings to play teenagers, or at least not nearly as much as in most teen movies. This sort of thing doesn’t happen often enough (see my review of “She Monkeys” and “Turn Me On, Goddammit,” two films that really deliver on this issue), and it’s refreshing to see someone at a major studio trying to make a movie both for and about actual teenagers. True, there’s no prom night sex involved, but this is a Disney film, so what could you expect?
All of those successes just make the broken and exhausted love story at the film’s core seem even more ridiculous. Yet I wonder the extent to which the film’s cliché problem even matters. I can’t see “Prom” drawing in big numbers from people in high school who might actually go to a prom any time soon or know anything about the reality of being in the 11th or 12th grade. The demographic for this new Disney confection skews lower, at tweens that are still excited by the glamour of all those older kids who get to put on really expensive dresses and go spend a night dancing to some mediocre local DJ. Most of those kids probably haven’t seen the countless teen romances that use the exact story copied here with Nova and Jesse.
Is falling into cliché okay if you’re pretty confident your main demographic won’t be bored? It's worth pointing out that even a movie as lauded for its creativity as "10 Things I Hate About You" depends on William Shakespeare for its plot. Maybe it's almost necessary that new generations get their own version of this motif, as these "millennials" probably have little connection with "Grease" or "The Breakfast Club," and it's now been almost a decade since "A Walk to Remember." I'm not pretending any of these films are executed with the same degree of skill, but ignoring the critical consensus they've garnered can we not say that they're each attempting to fill the same space for a new crop of young people?
"Prom" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: Disney Channel original movies, "10 Things I Hate About You," "High School Musical"