Movie Prom Highs and Lows
By Laura Kern
Docs like Midnight in Paris present joyful takes on the high-school tradition, while fiction films often reveal another side.
For many teenagers, the senior prom represents a period of heightened anxiety at a particularly fraught time of life. There are the damaging self-esteem issues that go along with the fear of not finding a date, angst over feeling unpopular or unnoticed, and the added financial concerns of needing to buy that perfect dress or rent that tux or stretch limo. But for the lucky ones, it can be a time of release fueled by pure bliss, a reprieve from worrying about exams and the pressures of having to soon start leading a more “adult” life.
A new documentary, currently streaming exclusively on Metrograph, reminds us of the vast influence the prom has had on cinema, from nonfiction to teen comedies to horror classics. Roni Moore and James Blagden’s Midnight in Paris takes a firmly optimistic stance, regarding the prom as a euphoric occasion—one at which boys and girls, equally excited, can get out of their everyday clothes, break from their shells, and shine for one night. The film trails a small group of students in May 2012, through the school week leading up to the big event. At the all-Black (at least as depicted in the film) Northern High School in Flint, Michigan—a former automotive town shown in a very different light in Michael Moore’s 1989 Roger & Me and this year’s Flint, addressing the town’s poisoned water supply—the focus is on the students’ less complicated daily activities: sports and marching-band practice, graduation rehearsals, and, of course, prom preparations. From within the school’s hallways, lined with padlocked bright red and yellow lockers and signs denouncing bullying, and the students’ homes, viewers get a taste of their interactions with their families as well as their friends, with whom they discuss universal prom topics: is your date a “date” date or a “friend” date, what they’re going to wear, and post-prom partying and sex. More practical details, which usually evoke issues of class, are also addressed by the film, such as modes of transportation and dress donations, and the high price of corsages.
It’s impossible not to wonder while watching any documentary with cameras planted on especially impressionable subjects how much of what you are seeing is the real “them,” and how much exists for the audience’s benefit. But the teens here come off as quite relaxed and natural, unlike in another prom-related doc, American Teen (Nanette Burstein, 2008), where there’s not a single moment that doesn’t feel completely staged. With its abundance of positive vibes and family values, it’s no wonder that the easy-to-digest Midnight in Paris has already charmed festival audiences.
“MODERN” FILMS NATURALLY EXPLORE A MORE SOPHISTICATED OPENNESS IN TERMS OF DATES, GOING AGAINST THE OLD-SCHOOL, OFTEN TACKY PROM TRADITIONS—BUT WE’RE REALLY NOT SO EVOLVED.
It’s interesting, and somewhat surprising, how often the movies capturing real life choose to portray the prom through rose-colored glasses, particularly in two other prom-themed documentaries from the past 15 years. While Paul Saltzman’s Prom Night in Mississippi (2009) delves deep into the racism that has forever plagued the tiny town of Charleston, Mississippi (population 2,100)—only in 1970 were Black students allowed to attend school with whites, but the senior prom remained segregated—it also puts forth the annual gathering as hope for the next generations. In 1997, Morgan Freeman, a Charleston native and current resident, offered to pay for the school to institute a combined prom, but was refused. Just over a decade later he tries again, as seen in the film, and this time his proposal to help put a stop to the “idiocy” is accepted. And a large part of the movie is spent following the students as they exuberantly prepare for the big night. The event itself is fancier than the one seen in Moore and Blagden’s film—but with Freeman’s money their subjects probably could have afforded a live band too and maybe a more stately Eiffel Tower than the cheap makeshift one that they had on display in support of their chosen theme of “Midnight in Paris.” The students of the 70-percent-Black Charleston High come off as very levelheaded and vocally opposed to the outdated racial divide that still rules their town. They believe, like Freeman, that it’s their forced segregation that creates the unnecessary disunity among the students. And Freeman’s efforts ultimately seem to have made a difference. Even if some of the parents still couldn’t bring themselves to abandon the all-white prom—they made sure one was thrown in addition to the combined one—the students report that the mixing resulted in closer, more regular social interactions.
Further north, in Racine, Wisconsin, whose youth population claim their town is boring and full of crime, the prom is maybe the highlight of the whole year, not just for the teens but for every single person living there. The World’s Best Prom (2006), directed by Ari Vena and Chris Talbott of the filmmaking collective OVO, shows the supersize preparations that go into producing their red-carpet prom-night proceedings, which are televised, with bleachers set up so that people can watch the students’ arrivals as if they’re attending the Oscars. Combining several surrounding high schools, this massive event, celebrated in this way since the 1950s, holds the theme “Night in Paradise” for their 2000 edition, and indeed the big day provides the students, and the rest of the town, with a little slice of heaven that helps make up for an unexceptional rest of the year.
Endless words alone could be devoted to the role of the prom in romantic teenage fare over the years, especially as featured in ’80s classics like Pretty in Pink, Valley Girl, Back to the Future, and Footloose. Or in less memorable films from the ’90s and beyond, the best of which are all rather oddly from 1999: Drive Me Crazy, American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, and Never Been Kissed, a movie told from the perspective of a 25-year-old undercover journalist who preaches that there’s a bigger world out there than prom and by the time the students reach her age it won’t mean anything. But with the way it’s consistently built up on screen and off, it makes sense that it’s such a defining occasion in the moment. Honestly, it’s difficult to find any high school–set film where the prom—or homecoming dance—doesn’t play a part.
“Modern” films naturally explore a more sophisticated openness in terms of dates, going against the old-school, often tacky prom traditions of the past, like in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), where two fallen-out best friends, Lady Bird and Julie (Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein), make up and go together, in an unusual bid to promote the importance of friendship over romantic love. But we’re really not so evolved—as recent as last year’s Selah and the Spades, a girl was still asking, “Is it weird if I go alone?”—and you’d certainly be hard-pressed to find examples of same-sex dates, though The Prom, based on the acclaimed Broadway musical and set for release later this year, focuses on a female student in conservative Indiana fighting to bring her girlfriend.
It’s in cinema of the more sinister variety where some of the most memorable prom sequences ever captured are found. Who can forget in Star 80 (1983) when Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), the insanely possessive, long-out-of-high-school prom date—and later husband and murderer—of a pre-Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), stabs her ex-lover on the dance floor? Or Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage) being burned to a crisp after being crowned prom queen in the second, and perhaps best, film in the Prom Night franchise. Or the likable teenage nerd decomposing throughout the night, after coming back from the dead to take his dream girl to the prom in Bob Balaban’s underrated My Boyfriend’s Back (1993). Or pretty much every squirm-inducing moment of Simon Byrne’s brilliant feature debut, The Loved Ones (2009), as Brent (Xavier Samuel) is given a hellish personalized (Australian!) prom experience while being held captive in the home of the deranged girl he turned down. And is there a more iconic image in all of horror than that of Sissy Spacek’s shell-shocked Carrie dripping in pigs’ blood after winning a rigged prom-queen title? The heroine of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic always felt like a total outsider, and yet for the first time in her life she begins to feel accepted—when it all comes crashing down. It’s a devastating scene in a movie full of many, even knowing that her telekinetic powers will be used to enact full-blown, fiery revenge on those who treated her badly. In Jawbreaker (Darren Stein, 1999), the moment of prom-queen crowning glory is used for exposing an atrocity, not committing one. While the option for tracking down some pig blood for a little Carrie-style payback is discussed, her ex-besties opt instead to play a recording over the loudspeaker of Rose McGowan’s character Courtney Shayne—a prom-queen name if ever there was one—admitting she killed one of their former clique, her moment of victory morphing into utter, totally deserved defeat.
So while it’s often a curse in the fantasy world of movies, in real-life high school, the title of Prom Queen or King is assumed to mean something important: not only are you popular and attractive, but it might also offer some sort of assurance for a brighter future. But whatever your personal identification with the prom may be—the horror or the glee—what’s perhaps most refreshing in Midnight in Paris and Prom Night in Mississippi is that their crowned kings and queens don’t fit the generic bill of the Barbie/Ken, cheerleader/jock selections that are regularly featured in fictional cinema and much of reality. In a year of perpetual bad news, when many students were forever robbed of the eagerly awaited prom experience due to coronavirus cancelations—unabashedly light movies like Midnight in Paris feel especially vital, as a record of positivity and now even nostalgia.