While most of this review is going to be a fairly harsh critique of The Prom, I do want to get one thing out of the way: I genuinely enjoyed this movie. Despite the faults that I will spend the rest of the review discussing, I laughed and cried and had fun. And ultimately, I think that a studio like Netflix producing a big-budget, widely advertised movie that centers on an interracial sapphic couple and queer experiences is important. Even though it is far from perfect, it is a step in the right direction.
Directed by Ryan Murphy, The Prom centers on four Broadway actors (portrayed by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells) who are down on their luck. In order to drum up some good press, they decide to pick a cause on Twitter that they can campaign for. Who they find is Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a gay teen in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, who just wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. However, the PTA decides to cancel the prom in order to prevent the couple from going. Just to make things more complicated, Alyssa is still in the closet, and it is her mom (Kerry Washington) who leads the fight to exclude gay couples from prom.
The standout performance for me was Keegan-Michael Key as Principal Hawkins. He did an amazing job, hitting high points in both the emotional and comedic scenes. Pellman and DeBose both had great performances as the young lovers, and I am excited to see what they do in the future. Rannells, with his copious Broadway experience, was also a definite standout performance. Although his overall screen time is limited, he really shines in his key moments. “Love Thy Neighbor” is a musical spectacular thanks to Rannells’ skill. Meryl Streep is, of course, Meryl Streep. She is not the belter the role calls for, so her numbers leave a little to be desired, but her acting was still great.
Corden’s casting sparked outrage on social media. As I am not a gay man, I feel like I cannot make a judgment myself, and have to defer to the many that called his stereotypical performance offensive. Even without this, I felt his performance was the weakest of the bunch, as he struggled to show true vulnerability when it was sorely needed.
In many ways, the show is a solid movie musical. The music and lyrics are not necessarily innovative, but they are exactly what an audience tuning into a modern musical might expect, and they are well done. The choreography is amazing. The downfall of the show ends up being the construction of the plot.
The Prom tries to have seven main characters, which is just too much for a two-hour film. The result was that none of the characters felt fully explored, and most of the relationships and their development were lacking. Emma and Alyssa hardly get any screen time together, which is disappointing considering it is theoretically their love story. Moreover, while Emma is supposed to really connect with Corden and Kidman’s characters, there is not any development — it is the platonic version of insta-love. The actors show up, and then twenty minutes later, they have supposedly been great friends to Emma, even though we did not get to see how they got there.
But the greatest issue is the forcefulness of the “happy” ending and the movie’s aversion to queer pain. For some reason, Murphy forgot that the end of the movie can still be happy without everything being tied up in a big red bow. Most importantly, he forgot that queer people can be happy even if they are not accepted by their parents.
Alyssa’s mother is bigoted. This is very clear throughout the movie, as she voices her disapproval for the “lifestyle” of gay people. As if this was not enough, she is incredibly cruel to Emma, a teenage girl, just because she is a lesbian. However, after Alyssa comes out to her mom, we get a whiplash-inducing twenty-minute character reversal. She pulls the cliche “I just don’t want you to have a hard life” line, even though we know that is not true because she has been insulting gay people the entire movie. So we end with a patently plastic mother-daughter reunion.
But that is not the end of the forced-reunion narratives. We learn partway through the movie that Corden’s character, Barry, was rejected by his parents. He knew they would not accept him, and left home at sixteen before they could kick him out. Streep’s character urges him to contact his parents while they are in Indiana, since they are relatively nearby. He says he does not want to. What happens? She contacts them for him, which is a huge violation of privacy and trust. The outcome is a reconciliation between Barry and his mother, where she apologizes and says she loves him. But as soon as you step back from the moment it just rings hollow. Barry is a well-known Broadway star. If his mother truly wanted to apologize to him, she could have contacted him herself. Nonetheless, we as the audience are supposed to perceive this moment as acceptance.
In a world where many queer people are rejected by their parents, it is almost hurtful that the movie insisted that everyone make up with their parents. There are many successes at the end of the movie, which would have made the ending perfectly happy even without the forced family reconciliations. But Murphy was too scared to allow his audience to sit with the real pain that queer people experience, and instead had to wrap everything up in a shiny bow while ignoring real life.