Netflix’s feel-good musical romp The Prom may have the best of intentions, but, like many prom nights, it falls short of living up to its expectations. You have to give it some credit for trying, though. The film follows the intervention of some Broadway stars after the PTA of a small Indiana town would rather cancel prom than let a lesbian student take her girlfriend, and there’s let’s-put-on-a-show flair to the way The Prom has its characters approach this pressing social justice issue.
The Prom is chock-full of talent: it’s directed by the ambitious camp champ Ryan Murphy, who seems to have produced half the shows on television right now, and the screenplay is by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, with music by Matthew Sklar (all of whom wrote the book and score for the Broadway production this is adapted from). Add in megawatt star characters like Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) — Broadway divas so full of themselves it’s astonishing they have any room for empathy — and you seem to be guaranteed an incredible evening of entertainment.
And while it’s not quite that, there are moments that are plenty fun and full of emotion. Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is the sweet, reluctant star of the show, a teenager who does not want to become an emblem of the fight for queer representation and LGBTQ+ rights, but who is nevertheless put in the national spotlight when she fights for her right to dance with her secret girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) without being shamed. Dee Dee and Barry arrive to try and help her out, and are joined by bubbly chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Andrew Rannells’ Trent Oliver (who went to Juilliard, as he frequently reminds us).
Their whole plan is an explosion of belting and dance moves. While Corden hams it up to an almost offensive degree, Rannells is an eternal ray of sunshine sashaying his way through the mall and the halls of high school, and Streep and Kidman really make the most of their many sequins.
The Prom could do more, though, to allow its young stars Pellman and DeBose to shine. Despite being marketed as a celebration of queer teens, the film is never really about the teenagers at its center. The Prom animates the absurdities of high school life as it makes a whole song and dance of promposals, but it largely revolves around the adults who are so enamored with themselves that they don’t seem to see, or care, that they’re not actually helping. The Prom is self-aware about this — Dee Dee sings a whole number titled “It’s Not About Me” — and there are some entertaining moments of self-parody in the “Acceptance Song”, in which they mock themselves in an attempt to entertain their audiences.
And yet, that self-awareness still leaves something to be desired, as the film does not appear to fully recognize how it falls short of providing the feel-good queer story its premise promises. The actors may claim to have set out to humanize gay people and gay icons, but the film is often bogged down by stereotypes about its queer characters — flamboyant and flouncy Broadway actors who do nothing but talk about themselves — and its Indiana setting, which is depicted as a backward backwoods. All Emma wants is to be able to go to prom and dance with her girlfriend; she does not want to become a symbol, and yet she is transformed into a flat caricature of a fashion-challenged lesbian and small-town charity case nonetheless. She’s given a chance to raise her own voice in her song “Unruly Heart”, one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, but it only leaves us wishing for more time to see this character find herself.
The Prom is glitzy and glamorous, and there are flashes of colored lights, sequined and sparkling costumes, and makeover montages. Yet the production’s showiness and slickness sometimes impart a feeling of inauthenticity, as some of the singing feels too auto-tuned and over-produced. Without the more visceral emotion of a stage show, it all feels — like many high school proms do — a little too overly made-up and over-hyped, leaving an anticlimactic feeling by the time it’s all over.
Keegan-Michael Key’s Principal Hawkins sings about theater’s power being in the way it can whisk us away from soul-crushing jobs. The Prom does live up to this promise of being a bit of sugar-coated escapism for two hours, but it’s not exactly certain whether the world we are escaping into is worth staying in for long. While it is an extraordinarily fun piece of musical theatre with plenty of catchy tunes, some of the heart and genuine emotion of the stage production doesn’t quite seem to have translated to the screen. Although it has its memorable moments, then, this adaptation of The Prom is not a night we’ll never forget. For now, we’re better off sticking to listening to the Broadway cast album and imagining what these characters would have felt like in more dimensions.