In the middle of America, taffeta reigns supreme
Filmmaker Hali Lee's prom didn't live up to her expectations of a life-changing event, and the experience has bothered her for some time, leading her to be fascinated with the idea. She was fascinated enough to spend years of her life attending proms in her old home town of Kansas City, Missouri, filming subjects with her co-director Peter von Ziegesar. Eventually, she found the right cast of characters to tell the story of prom night.
The students in the film come from diverse backgrounds and different schools in Kansas City. From "Smurf," a young black guy who has won several crowns at previous dances, to Beth, a young white girl from a conservative Mormon school, to Gayla, a lesbian getting ready for a same-sex prom, almost everyone is represented in this film. That even goes for the outsider who never was into the dance, a role represented by cynical Oliver, whose date for the prom is his video camera. As diverse as America is and as hard it is to tell every tale, this film does a pretty good job of telling the stories of a wide swath of the population.
The filmmakers compare proms to the old high-society debutante's ball, and makes them out to be the coming-out party of the middle class. From there, the prom is further broken down to represent different things to different groups, groups that seem to be defined by social class or culture. For some, like Smurf, being prom king is better than anything he could have accomplished in the classroom. While Oliver represents an enlightened view of proms as relatively pointless exercises in extravagance (a view he supports with his camera), it's obvious that, no matter what the reason, proms mean a lot to a lot of people.
Two of the more interesting storylines cover groups on completely opposite ends of the social spectrum. Beth's school is a highly-conservative one, and as a result, her prom is unlike any other. Beth not only can't dance at her prom, she also has to have her dress approved and there are other challenges to a good time on the way. This section of the film may be the most depressing, and most bizarre. To listen to her friend Nick describe the church's beliefs is to have one's limits for weirdness tested. Tom Cruise has made more sense in explaining his religion.
On the other hand, there's Gayla, who is attending an alternative lifestyles prom with her girlfriend Katie. Though there's very little about her that's feminine (she could pass for a guy, specifically MacKenzie Astin, without a problem), it's unusual to watch her try on tuxedos. The discussions that arise from Katie's choice of outfit and the way their story progresses illustrate topics that are not exactly prom-focused, but which are worth exploring anyway. This happens several times in the film, and the filmmakers go with it, straying from their focus, but with positive results.
The one thing the filmmakers do not do though is try to provide "answers." They just watch for examples of what the prom means to people, and it's obvious that it means alot to Gayla and her friends, as they are willing to go through the effort of having their own prom when faced with being prevented from attending the "straight" proms. Though at several points the narration ruminates on the concept of proms, the closest the film comes to delivering a theory on proms is when Lee provides her own coda to the movie, following updates from several of the subjects, two years after their proms. Whether it was the result of the prom or not, their lives have changed.
With the exception of a light layer of noise that creeps into the mix, the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio mix is well-done, keeping separation between the dialogue and music. There are a few spots where the recordings are a bit tinny, but considering the limited nature of the film's soundtrack, the delivery is fine. Nothing about the track should disrupt while watching the film.
The other extra is one of those rare trailers that makes me really want to see the film, which is the teen self-documentary Chain Camera. There's a review of the film coming soon to DVDTalk, which I really can't wait for.
Included on the four-page insert is "Prom Pop Culture List: Essential prom tunes and movies." The name is pretty much the explanation.
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