Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tweenage Dream: PROM

Disney’s latest attempt to promote the high-school experience to tweens nationwide is the relatively low-key dramedy Prom that takes the manic fantasy of the High School Musical efforts, adds a dose of realism (by way of predictability) and dials back on the goofy tries for fun. It’s not a particularly good film, but it makes a few awkward stabs at becoming one.

Studio chief Rich Ross has publicly said that he wanted Prom to hark back to the kind of authenticity found in the films of John Hughes like The Breakfast Club. That’s a tall order and I suppose the influence can be seen in the up-to-date soundtrack but director Joe Nussbaum and screenwriter Katie Wech would have been wise to listen to what Hughes told Roger Ebert in a 1984 interview. He said, “People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.” Prom is not a serious film and it doesn’t need to be, but it should be serious about its characters.

This is a movie that plays as if it is smarter than the kids we’re watching. It’s an ensemble of high-school-age characters who are eagerly awaiting prom night, sweating about dresses and tuxes and who they’ll go with. It’s the center of their world, and yet, the movie itself seems awfully blasé about the actual event. I mean, you and I and every other person who has graduated from high school knows that life doesn’t begin and end with prom night but these characters don’t have the same level of perspective. Towards the beginning of the movie, a group of girls drool over the poster announcing the big date, babbling about preliminary plans. This moment is played for laughs when one character, finding his locker blocked, moves the poster to the opposite wall while the girls blindly follow it, chattering all the way. Why should we care that these kids care when the movie itself uses their emotions for cheap laughs?

The movie is an accumulation of rote exposition setting up dull cliché. The various threads are made up of such conventional teen-movie conflicts like the girl (Yin Chang) who needs to tell her boyfriend (Jared Kusnitz) that they aren’t going to the same college next year, the boy (Nicholas Braun) who just can’t find a girl to go with, and the girl (Kylie Bunbury) with the boyfriend (DeVaughn Nixon) who seems just a little too sleazy to really have given most of the girls’ soccer team a ride home the other day, thereby excusing the earring found wedged in his jeep’s seat cushion. These plots fade into the background, simply because they aren’t given as much time as the featured characters.

The class president (Aimee Teegarden) is improbably forced to work with the misunderstood bad boy (Thomas McDonell) in order to repair the prom decorations that were mostly destroyed in a fire. Meanwhile, a cute-as-a-button sophomore (Nolan Sotillo) has a crush on his lab partner (Danielle Campbell), who is being wooed to go to prom with an older guy. These two relationships were the most compelling to me, simply because they were the points at which the filmmaking and the characters' emotions seemed most in sync. They weren’t appreciably less predictable, but they got the closest to reaching me. Moments like when a kid climbs a tree to make a last-minute plea to his crush, or when a girl realizes that she’s fallen for the bad boy who may not be so bad after all are cliché. They know it and we know it, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel it. Teegarden, McDonell, and Sotillo, especially, very nearly sell the emotion of these moments.

But I just wish the movie felt emotional more often. It’s always unsurprising, but for the majority of its runtime it wobbles between the satisfying and the unsatisfying, skipping through its ensemble, and then finally, sadly, tilts permanently to the side of unsatisfying. It’s various plot threads are too misshapen and half-hearted to truly run with the emotion that flickers untapped below the surface. It’s a movie about characters who think high school romance is the end-all-be-all of their social lives, but the movie stands back and knows that its not. There’s a tension there that goes unexploited, resulting in a movie that doesn’t really seem to care one way or the other.

By the time the movie arrives at the big climax at the actual prom itself, it’s pulled off just well enough that it made me wish the whole film took place that night with all the conflicts put in a pressure cooker of one small slice of time. But then I realized I was basically wishing for American Graffiti. Now, that’s a great end-of-high-school movie that works at a level Prom can only wish it was working.

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