The funny thing about Prom is that hardly anything actually happens at prom. It’s still a movie, so of course there’s a last-minute declaration of love and a totally embarrassing moment for the prom king, but for the most part, the film’s titular celebration is represented by shots of kids dancing to vaguely suggestive pop tunes and girls complimenting each other’s dresses.
Considering this is a Disney version of the ritual in which everybody is happily enjoying their punch and limos are being used solely for the purpose of transportation, it would be naive to say the film presents a realistic portrayal of high school, yet Prom somehow manages to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of making the idyllic seem firmly grounded in an Anywhere, USA ethos.
There’s a strong core of guilelessness and heart-on-sleeve earnestness to Prom that actually becomes more and more infectious as the film chugs along. First-time screenwriter Katie Wech, who wisely realizes that her audience of preteen girls are still idealistic enough to hear lines like “This is our forever night” without rolling their eyes, injects her script with enough sweetly-worn character moments and sneakily resonant morsels of teenage anxiety that Prom surprisingly ends up breaking free of its bubblegum pretense right at the moments when it counts.
The film’s cornerstone drama comes courtesy of class president Nova (Aimee Teegarden) and bad boy Jesse (Thomas McDonnell), who are forced to work together after the shack housing all the dance’s “Starry Night” decorations goes up in flames. For Nova (you won’t get an explanation for her name—kids are just that much cooler these days), the after-school hours of light untangling and tulle folding are of utmost important civic duty. For Jesse, whose bad-boy persona basically means he wears leather and drives a motorcycle, they’re a form of after-school detention. A forbidden romance inevitably blooms, and while the plotting largely lacks imagination, the two young actors are able to save it with their endearing and largely unforced chemistry.
Elsewhere, Wech borrows liberally from the recent trend of loosely connected blackout vignettes recently seen in Valentine’s Day and made popular by Love, Actually. While most are slight enough to give you the impression that the format only exists to avoid fleshing out any of the stories past the 20-minute mark, more often than not, they work due to director Joe Nussbaum’s brisk, congenial pacing. A plot involving a boy (Nicholas Braun) desperate on finding a date is the obvious, good-natured show stealer, largely in part to Braun’s ability to channel a young John Cusack. Most bizarre, and therefore best, is a plot involving newcomer Kylie Bunbury as a girl who discovers her lacrosse captain boyfriend has been cheating on her with another girl (which in this universe involves only kissing). Not much comes of this other than scene after scene of quiet self-assured chin raises and cathartic couples-pic purging, but it’s oddly reassuring to see a filmmaker shoehorn a tale of early self-actualization into a film that really doesn’t have much space for it.
It’s worth noting that there’s a clear attempt at replicating Brat Pack teenage normalcy throughout most of Prom. While ads for the film have been accompanied by Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Prom saves the Top 40 for the actual dance and instead mostly features the same sort of shoegazey dream-pop and jangly guitar chords that soundtracked the best John Hughes films. Nussbaum also makes the distinct choice of shooting much of his movie via handheld cameras, which allows the setting a certain air of authenticity and homespun detail. The fact that the majority of the cast actually looks of appropriate age for high school certainly doesn’t make matters worse.
Despite some wooden acting (Teegarden is much better suited to the loose, improvisational style of Friday Night Lights) and the fact that nothing about it is even remotely new, Prom is refreshing for just how completely unhip it is. The 11-year-olds who’ll inevitably be watching this movie at sleepovers will get the chance to see characters who haven’t already cloaked themselves in defense-mechanism jadedness and who still retain hope that their wild expectations can one day be met underneath plastic stars and a shimmering disco ball.