Joe Nussbaum is the Hollywood producer’s go-to guy for low-rent films about high school. So conspicuously and curiously wholesome they practically set off Amber Alerts, his films fixate on the politics of making friends, keeping Mom and Dad out of your hair, and making it to the school dance with a hottie in tow—and dignity intact. With Sleepover, Sydney White, and now Prom, all sincerely deluded fantasies of what our high schools are really like, he actively campaigns to be recognized as our tweener nation’s John Hughes.
Prom, a stressed-out chronicle of a night foretold, is about high school, how it happens to everyone, divides us, yada yada yada, and for one night, brings us together. At least that’s how it’s seen by goodie-two-shoes class prez Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden), whose prom committee is dealt a severe blow when the bells and whistles for their “Starry Night”-themed dance go up in candle-incited flames. With AP exams keeping her motley crew of helper ants occupied, it’s up to Nova to save prom by her lonesome, until she gets unexpected help from the brooding, motorcycle-riding, always-asking-for-detention Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell), a Disneyed “bad boy” with a striking resemblance to a young Johnny Depp.
Once prom night is solidified, some dozen or so high schoolers of all shapes, sizes, and races—sorry, no gays, though the court is still out on Nova’s dead-fish of a Princeton-bound crush and two small fries who check each other at one point for “butt breath”—race to ask someone (anyone!) to go to prom with them, and in the most cutely elaborate ways. The sweetest invitation, from Justin (Jared Kusnitz) to Mei (Yin Chang), is the film’s gracefully, Glee-fully staged highpoint, and though Nicholas Braun’s Lloyd is dutifully turned down by a slew of girls in one corny scenario after another, the hulking teen at least gets the film’s funniest bit: an out-of-nowhere slam of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
The film, a wish-fulfillment fantasy through and through, sounds as if it was scripted by a tween, but it acknowledges the sincerity of its characters’ desires without denying that the ritual of prom is by and large a frivolous one. The plot is clogged with rote incidents familiar from countless teen movies about heartache and college-initiated separation, but the low-budget aesthetic choices—from the frequent use of handheld to the use of music (Passion Pit and M83 are prominently featured, but Katy Perry has to wait until the big night to be heard)—give the whole thing a semblance of the real; it helps that the actors, even the ones pushing 20, look as if they could be real high schoolers. Prom is, then, like high school in a way, asking audiences to take the good with the bad: Unlike real life, no one gets bullied, but like the high schools most of us are likely to remember, not everyone looks like Zac Efron.