“It happens to everyone,” says Nova (Aimee Teegarden). By “it,” she means high school, that four-year survival course, full of stress and division and competition and ending with prom, that magical night when all the disparate factions of high school—the jocks and the science nerds, the popular kids and the misfits—come together to dance beneath disco ball lights. It’s the night, she insists, at the start of Prom, when high school is finally over.
Nova’s belief in the magical power of prom—and moreover, her belief in high school as an experience imposed on “everyone”—is surely quaint. It’s also drearily familiar: if high school doesn’t happen to everyone in quite the way she’s remembering it, high school movies do.
And so: Prom delivers what you expect: kids fret and act out, bond and break up, and adults remain clueless, hovering at the edges of a plot that once “happened to” them too, a plot now repressed or inflicted on the next generation, say, in the form of a movie just like this one. As your guide through this swirl of memory and fantasy is the overachiever Nova. Class president and head of the prom committee, she’s duly horrified when, after her committee has made “Starry Night” decorations for months, in a single evening they’re incinerated in an accidental fire (a fire you see coming as soon as a couple of students decide to share a candlelit dinner of burritos in the decorations storage shed). When her committee members all have other things to do before graduation—like study for AP exams or slack off—Nova is left with just three weeks to rebuild everything herself.
But even as poor Nova gasps and rubs her hands together, her principal comes (Jere Burns) comes up with a solution that is, on its face, much worse than the problem: she’s got a new coworker, the fabulously cute but completely uninvested loser, Jesse (Thomas McDonell). This set up leads to the usual contests of will. When she tells him to show up at 3pm, he rolls in (on his motorcycle) at 3:15. When she tells him to move some rolls of fabric from one place to another, he removes his shirt. And when she’s unable to sort out the electric wiring that will make the centerpiece fountain work, he knows exactly what needs to be done.
Everyone has a lesson to learn. Nova makes presumptions about Jesse based on his appearance and bad boy behavior, and yes, at the very same time that she’s judging him, he deduces that she’s rigid and judgmental. She’s enchanted when he takes her on a ride on his bike (“Trust me,” he says,” and reader, she does); he’s moved when he endures the dress-fitting montage and at last sees her in the perfect prom dress. He’s strikingly patient in the face of her intermittent panics, and she’s suddenly sane when she finds her parents are not.
That it takes the kids a while to find each other (and themselves) is not their fault. First, they’re in a movie defined by clichés and also, by its belief that all the clichés have to be explained, as if to five-year-olds. These are embodied not only by the Nova-Jesse trajectory, but also by tedious multiple other-plots involving crushes and disappointments and, in one case at least, an awesome mom, played by played by Amy Pietz, who patiently drives her 15-year-old son and his friends everywhere they need to go, offering only the occasional comment, so you know she knows what they think she doesn’t.
Other parents don’t fare so well. Nova must assure her overprotective and very proud father, Frank (Dean Norris), that her plans for prom and college after are on schedule even when they’re not; Jesse picks up his seven-year-old brother from school because their mother, Sandra (Christine Elise McCarthy), waits tables at the local diner. And of course, as the teens take on adult responsibilities, the adults behave like children—or at least Nova’s parents do. When her dad finds out she might be interested in Jesse, he puffs up his chest and harasses the poor kid down at the warehouse where he moves boxes around. Really? Has Frank never seen a high school movie?
As bad as Frank might be, the movie suggests, at least he’s “there.” Jesse’s father long ago abandoned the family: when he complains to his mother that he’s only following in his dad’s footsteps, being a “fighter,” literally, too quick to get into fights with teen bullies (in particular, teen bullies who give his mom a hard time at work, so you can feel assured that Jesse’s violence isn’t wholly unmotivated). Sandra reframes the story he’s telling: “I didn’t marry a fighter,” she says. “I married an idiot who got into fights.”
It’s hard not to love movie moms like Sandra, so sensible and supportive and so stereotypically “working” (denoted by the waitress uniform she wears in nearly every scene). But it’s easy to despair when you see moms like Nova’s. Kitty (Faith Ford) tends to show up in the kitchen and the living room, encouraging her daughter to pursue the “right” boy (an overachiever like her, neatly dressed and destined for the Ivy League). That she does so mostly silently is not a surprise either: when Kitty learns what damage her husband has wrought, she says nothing, but only looks sad, as if remembering her own father’s bad behavior when she hooked up with the teenaged version of Frank.
And this is what’s so irksome about the typical high school movie, Prom included. While it might offer a moment that gestures toward originality, or maybe just common sense, it is overwhelmed again and again by its generic imperative. High school movies are not about high school. They’re about other high school movies.