Having graduated from a conservative Christian high school in the Midwest just a few years ago myself, I’ll admit that I felt good watching The Prom, the musical film on Netflix, where the Hollywood stars flinched at the fact of Applebee’s being the nicest restaurant in town (which, in my case, was also true if counting within 30-minute drive distance).
Available on Netflix in December 2020 and having been adapted from a 2018 Broadway musical of the same name, the story of the Prom starts on Broadway, where four not-young-anymore yet unavailing Broadway stars get together and decide to do something to gild themselves and their career – activism that is. Through Twitter they discover that a girl called Emma in Edgewater, Indiana was banned to attend prom just because her date was a girl, so the Broadway stars set out to rescue the girl and the insensible citizens of Edgewater.
It just so happens that, I also know a guy from my high school who was almost kicked out after the school found out that he was gay, and at the same time, he was a talented singer. Therefore I could not restrain myself from substituting him into Emma’s position, and this is when problems arise.
There are some apparent cultural issues with the Prom (By the way, this Indiana resident complaining about the mall set in the movie being too luxurious for Indiana had me laughing out loud). For example, putting the Christian faith as the main motive of the homophobic antagonists (Edgewater citizens) does not put forward a practical activist message, and surely will not move anyone in my high school (if they could actually make it to the end of the movie which I doubt). The ending, where the leading homophobic, the PTA president Mrs.Greene, accepts her daughter, Alyssa, and Emma being together because she loves her daughter, is where even I was caught off guard. P.S. The villain’s daughter falling in love with the protagonist, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not only because people usually do not change their religious beliefs suddenly in real life, the surprise I experienced was also evidence of shortcomings in character shaping in this movie.
Since this movie and the original musical was adapted from a true story, I looked it up, just to discover that I am more drawn to the real-life version than the adaption. Although starting way behind, we are seeing less gender stereotypes and more attention on different sexualities in musicals this several years. One problem to do this in, especially, Broadway musicals is that audiences and especially the producers are used to all the glitz and laughter they associate with music theater, and so they believe that The Prom has to be another one of those Broadway musicals. As a fan of movies that discuss serious issues, I understand that the four Broadway stars were there for comedic effect, and I have no problem of with serious story being told in a more manageable manner, but the issue comes when the subplots of the Broadway stars is overshadowing the true main characters of the story, Emma and her girlfriend. The story of Dee Dee learning to act for others’ benefit is a good one, and Streep did it very well, but that plot could become another musical instead of occupying the limited time we have for Emma’s encounters and thoughts.
Emma is played by Jo Ellen Pellman, who was competent to be the main character though it may not appear so with all the starry casts around her. The character is based on the real-life Emma, Constance McMillen, who was rejected from bringing her girlfriend to prom in 2010. Instead of the Broadway stars, the person who persuaded McMillen to stand up for herself in real life is her mom, also a lesbian. The intrapersonal interactions we see of Emma in the movie is mostly with the Broadway stars, and a small portion being with her girlfriend, Alyssa. A good way to portray a character is to make their experience relatable, and hanging out with Broadway stars is just not one of those.
As said before, I wonder what the story would be like if the adaption focuses on the real story, such as the relationship between McMillan and her parents. More specifically, how McMillan was mostly raised by her dad, learned that her mom was a lesbian at the age of ten, discovered that she was also a lesbian, and was encouraged by her mom to fight against the discrimination she faced. The idea of accepting your parents as they are, accepting yourself as you are, and accepting your children as they are, I believe, will be able to put forward a more intimate story about sexuality and identity than the glittery stale popcorn we end up with, and will be able to make more audience sympathize with Emma whether they are in it for same-sex relationships or not.
The parent-teacher association in both the movie and real life organized a secret second prom which everyone in the school except for Emma knew. The almost first thing she did after finding it out in the movie, was to go meet with her girlfriend Alyssa, who sings her “I am” solo; They hold hand, and Emma broke up with her. No I did not see that one coming either. Maybe the book writers think it was a good idea to break up with their girlfriend right after she is deceived by her friends and her mother just because she made you feel embarrassed. This leads us into another major flaw in the Prom’s character design – Alyssa.
The fault with Alyssa is not at Ariana Debose who played her and I personally think Debose did a really great job as I could feel Alyssa’s emotions from her facial expressions. Rather what went wrong is that, as the bridge between Emma and the “liberals”(also no idea why they had to be this unnecessarily political), and the conservative Midwest, you would think Alyssa has an important role in the movie. But no, she is the substitute of the old-style I-sit-here-and-do-nothing heroine waiting for Emma the hero to act. One trend we often see in queer literature is that the traditional unequal relationship remains, except that instead of boy saves girl now we also have boy saves boy and girl saves girl(couldn’t think of a girl saves boy example from the top of my head). It is not hard to make Alyssa not the daydreaming princess – she should be longing to go to the prom too! Having her by Emma’s side when she is going through all of this will not only make Alyssa Greene a fuller character, but also without leaving me wondering if the two actually likes each other.
The movie The Prom tries to create a positive message and some entertainment for its audience, but it turns out that the positivity pulls us away from the no-joke real-world issues it is aiming at, and the entertainment distracts us from getting to know the main characters enough to empathize with them. It is ironic that the gilding(glitz and stars) of this movie is exactly what the Broadway star in it were trying to do. Although musicals on gender and sexuality issues is a fairly new field, that does not mean there is no movies and plays (or, guess what, real personal stories) to learn from, and as a 2020 movie the Prom could have done better on reflecting the real world the same time as entertaining through its book and character design.