You don’t need to be a 17-year-old lesbian to relate to the central character of Netflix’s The Prom. My high school did not host a prom. I attended a small, deeply religious conservative school that believed, as was whispered throughout the corridors, that “dancing leads to sex,” and therefore school dances of any form were outlawed.
This constraining, legalistic environment was not one that led young people to love and discovery, but rather to hide their desires and dreams. That is the exact message that The Prom fights against, and even though it’s a tad campy, there’s nothing wrong with a little dramatic flair. The overwhelming emotion is one of love and hope, a feeling we could all use a little more of particularly this year.
The story begins at a PTA meeting where Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington, cast against type) cancels the Indiana high school’s prom so Emma (bright-eyed newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) can’t bring her girlfriend to the dance. The principal Mr. Hawkins (the always delightful Keegan-Michael Key) stands by Emma, hoping to fight the ruling.
Little do they know, a group of narcissistic Broadway stars across the country are reeling from a slew of bad reviews and the early closing of their latest show, and they need to take on a “do-gooder” project to revamp their personal brands. They land in small-town Indiana like four fish-out-of-water and try to use their big city tricks (performing at a monster truck rally, anyone?) to win over the PTA, still not understanding why their plight is not taking center stage.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that each of them learns to put others first: the flamboyant show queen Barry (a jubilant James Corden) sees himself in Emma; fading leading lady Dee Dee (the divine Meryl Streep) discovers that sacrificing material things for people can lead to happiness; beleagured working actor Trent (theatre’s favorite son Andrew Rannells) finds his true calling; and chorus girl Angie (the perfect Nicole Kidman) learns that hard work, and a little “zazz,” pays off.
When the show was on Broadway, I definitely teared up at the appropriate moments and felt the kinetic energy of Casey Nicholaw’s dance moves, which the choreographer recreates successfully on screen, but something about the depth of the characters, particularly the central relationship between Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa Green (a charismatic Ariana DeBose onscreen), fell flat. Even though there is not much material added for the young lovers, the cinematic medium captures the longing and emotion much better in slow pans and closeups and with fantasy magic, particularly in the sweet duet “Dance With You.”
In fact, much of the story soars better onscreen in Murphy’s technicolor vision that flashes across the screen, mixing heightened musical sequences with heartfelt scenes. You truly feel the longing to be a part of a community and be accepted for who you are.
I’m not the only former high school student who can relate to this desire to celebrate. High schoolers all around the world this year saw their proms cancelled in the wake of Covid-19, not getting the last opportunity to be together with their classmates and honor their accomplishments. Luckily, Netflix has truly built a prom for everyone, and all you need is a Netflix account to score an invitation to the party on December 11.
The Prom premieres on Netflix on December 11.
Photo credit: Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman in The Prom on Netflix (Photo by Melissa Gordon/Netflix)