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World's Best Prom, The
"The World's Best Prom" is a sweet, fleeting reminder that not all teenagers are horrible, ungrateful bastards. This documentary takes a look at life in Racine, Wisconsin, an archetypal Midwestern hamlet where factory jobs are scarce, people come from miles around to have a bite of a Kringle (a round pastry), and the prom is an event. Let me clarify: the prom is everything to this town. Starting back in the 1950s as a way to keep the local kids out of trouble, the Racine prom has exploded into a pageant of showoff cars, glittery dresses, and awkward personal expression, topped off with local television coverage and bleachers for the parents. It's huge.
"Prom" tries to whittle down the experience into a manageable size by focusing on three participants: Dori is a Catholic high school student with big dreams and a taste for the chronic; Tonya is a young, intelligent African-American girl (cursed with the worst nervous laugh around) looking forward to the prom and college; Ben lives in the criminal shadow if his misguided older brother, and looks forward to challenges outside of school. While the doc is peppered with Racine's youngest throughout the journey, the filmmakers keep their cameras trained on these three to guide the viewer through the rituals of prom.
"Prom" started life as a short film (which might explain why the doc covers the class of 2000), and was gently nursed to feature length through the inclusion of a historical background for Racine and diversions with the local, and impossibly loving, adults. "Prom" offers more information about Racine than anyone should rightfully know, but thankfully it doesn't take long to get to the heart of the beast: the bonkers prom.
After a day of manicures, hair prepping, dress fiddling, and general anxiety, the kids finally make their way to the show. The first stop is the obligation to their school's own function. After drinking in those tepid delights, it's on to the Racine prom, herded in by the most outlandish assortment of vehicles one could imagine. Some come by limo or mom and dad's tricked-out car, others by military truck (archival footage shows a couple atop an elephant); whatever it takes to wow the bystanders and top their peers is encouraged.
All the arrival pandemonium is captured by television cameras that send the evening out to the citizens of Racine (in homes and local bars) who can't devote hours of their life to saving a seat on the bleachers. It's stunning the amount of work and money (the city spends $30,000 for the night) that goes into such a simple, traditional mainstay of adolescence, especially in a town where, during filming, unemployment was on the rise. The prom provides a spark of glamour to a place not known for such luxuries, and gives these Midwestern students a taste of Hollywood-style attention that keeps them coming back year after year.
"Prom" gets a little clumsy trying to tie together an overall portrait of the event's history and impact. The film is much stronger as a slice of high school life, complete with whiny angst, racial lines that are strictly adhered to, and embarrassing mothers. "World's Best Prom" taps into sentimental feelings with ease, and it's lovely portrait of rural community glamour, concluding with an bittersweet epilogue for each subject interviewed as they struggle with the realities of adulthood (the lone benefit of having the film shot so long ago) and recall fondly their time in the spotlight.