By David T. Valentin
The film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom, produced and directed by Ryan Murphy is finally here on Netflix and it is PACKED full of tear-jerker, belly laugh, ear-to-ear smiling moments for everyone.
The musical follows Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian high school student from a small town in Indiana who just wants to take her girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Ariana Debose) to the prom. Unfortunately, her small town is ripe with conservative opposition, who would rather cancel the prom than see a gay couple enjoying themselves at the prom. When Emma’s story goes viral on Twitter, four down on their luck Broadway actors–Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), Barry Glickman (James Corden), Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells)–decide to take a trip to Emma’s small town to fight for a just cause. What starts off as a selfish act to gain positive publicity, ends up being a moment of self-discovery and appreciation as they help Emma get the prom that she wants.
If the Boys in the Band is a product of 1968 queer politics and internalized homophobia, The Prom is a culmination of years of activism, self-discovery, and acceptance in the 21st century in order for queer people to exist with some sense of normalcy, even if their identity is political.
The heart of the play is Emma and Alyssa’s relationship and their desire to have a normal life as queer youth; to have what every other child gets to have, without having any act of just living as a political statement. Throughout the play Emma is constantly questioned by both the conservative side of her small town and the liberal side of her new actor friends from New York’s Broadway. Her small town thinks her act of wanting to go to the prom with her girlfriend is some vile attack on their traditional ways of life while her liberal actor friends want her to make this big grand statement. Throughout the movie Emma reminds them that she is trying to do neither of those things. Instead, she is just trying to be like any other high school teen and not exist within the context of homophobia or this grand political agenda.
I find that message of normalcy, of wanting to be normal without queer existence being a grand political statement, a powerful one. And even better, I find Emma’s insistence of wanting to deal with the situation her way a powerful one as well. Through this message of normalcy in The Prom demonstrates that accepting queer people and their experiences is not a difference of opinion or a difference of choice, but to accept queer people and the way they are is the right thing to do. For when you deny a queer child the basic normalcy and happiness of life, like going to a prom with their partner, you are then denying a child their happiness, their potential to explore their experience. That is what’s truly wrong, and The Prom makes sure to make that point time and time again not only through Emma’s character but Barry’s (James Corden) character as well.
While the musical did many things right in keeping its message of inclusivity and representation consistent and packed into almost every scene, I did find the character of Emma, and even her relationship with Alyssa, a little lackluster. Despite being the main characters, and source of conflict, by the end of the film I didn’t feel like I really knew either of them or their back stories very much. They tell us about Emma’s parents kicking her out of the house, and Alyssa’s father leaving (which hints about her mother’s own struggles as a single mother) sure, but even when there were scenes between Emma and Alyssa I found them stale and a little unconvincing. Perhaps that’s what happens when you put actors like Meryl Streep and James Corden next to small actors?
Interestingly I found out that Ariana Grande was supposed to play Alyssa Greene and I have to say that I’m happy that she didn’t. First off, I fine Ariana Grande too mature-looking to even pretend to be a high-school student, and second, it wouldn’t have driven home the underlying pressures of Alyssa’s character as a woman of color and daughter of a single Black mother. I’m not sure if in the original production Alyssa’s character is cast as a WOC, but I felt Ariana Debose’s casting added more nuance to her coming out story that we don’t really get to see in mainstream media coming out stories (mainly because many of the main characters tend to be white).
Personally, I would’ve preferred if Ariana DeBose’s character, Alyssa Greene, was the main character. I found her character as a WOC hiding her sexuality and trying to be the perfect child due to the pressures of being the daughter of a single mother and also being a WOC to be more compelling than Emma’s story of post-coming out. I know from family members and friends who are BIPOC who face the pressures of needing to be extraordinary just to be seen as equal as some of their white peers who do the bare minimum a story that certainly needs more representation in LGBTQ+ media.
Even though the film is largely about queer youth and coming out, it is also about the power of art and its power to act as a means to explore yourself in moments of crisis; a theme quite relatable in these unprecedented times.
In the end, The Prom is a step forward from stories defined in relation to heterosexuality and bigotry and big outward acts of activism. It reminds us that the little moments of life, the little moments of normalcy in queer youth lives—such as going to prom—are a form of resistance to homophobia and a political landscape that defines us as other.