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Prom Review: Sequins and Sapphic Love Make this Musical a Triumph

It took me a while to get around to Prom. Though this is a film that says LESBIAN RIGHTS with its entire chest, the description offered by Netflix plays coy. But I finally decided to watch because who doesn’t love a bit of Meryl Streep or musical theatre? And I wasn’t disappointed.

Prom isn’t just a musical; it’s a musical built around an interracial lesbian romance. Not that you would know it from any of the promotional posters. The decision to downplay the lesbian theme for mainstream appeal is entirely at odds with the ethos of Prom. Because this story is political.

All Emma Nolan wants is to bring her girlfriend to prom. But – rather than risking a same-sex couple showing up – the Edgewater PTA decides to cancel. Instead of blaming the school board’s homophobia, the students of James Madison High make Emma into a scapegoat – leaving her more alone than ever before. Though she’s introduced with an upbeat musical number, Emma hasn’t had an easy life. At sixteen she was made homeless by her homophobic parents. But Principal Hawkins is ready to fight Emma’s corner, supporting her through a civil rights case. And, as the story breaks online, a team of unlikely angels flock to Emma’s side.

Four aging, out of work actors decide to become champions of social justice to reignite their flagging careers. Once the winner of two Tony Awards, Dee Dee Allen’s (Meryl Streep) latest show ended in failure on opening night. Her co-star and fellow narcissist Barry Glickman (James Corden) had a similar run of bad luck. So has their bartender, former sitcom star Trent Oliver. And Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), a chorus girl with her heart set on playing Roxie in Chicago. With her eyes on the prize, Angie hatches a plan: pick a pet cause to show the world how selfless they are. After some drunken social media scrolling, they settle on Emma.

via GIPHY


The actors board a Greyhound from New York to Indiana with Dee Dee’s publicist in tow. Armed with towering musical numbers and liberal sensibilities, they plan on bringing tolerance to Edgewater. As one might expect, these four egomaniacs are more of a hindrance than a help. Yet stepping out of their celebrity bubble for long enough to be a part of Emma’s struggle triggers a growth in these actors, each emotionally stunted after years of praise and pandering. And what they lack in self-awareness, the Broadway crew more than make up for in flamboyant charm.

At first glance, a musical about a young lesbian’s path to social acceptance seems like a sharp departure from Ryan Murphy’s usual work. His best-known dramas are set in asylums, not high schools. But Prom is a charming blend of camp and cynicism; a balance that Murphy perfected with the smash-hit series Pose. For all the glitzy tuxedos and Broadway glamour, Prom doesn’t pack an emotional punch so much as a sledgehammer. It brings to life the gut-wrenching pain of high-school cruelty and small-town homophobia.

Prom isn’t perfect. The film is more than two hours long. Despite the pizazz and jazz hands, it lags in places. Certain musical numbers could have been cut (I’m looking at you, James Corden), and some long-winded scenes shortened. It’s ironic that a film about the pitfalls of celebrity ego was under-edited; no doubt in deference to the top tier director and A-list cast.

Some parts of Prom are hard to believe. With Kerry Washington as the prissy PTA President, Ariana DeBose and Sofia Deler as two of the most popular girls in school, Black women and girls are at the top of the pecking order. Is this really representative of racial dynamics in rural Indiana?

The Prom brings teenage lesbian representation

I am willing to go along with the other unlikely plot points owing to sheer enjoyment of the film. For example, the romance between Principal Hawkins (played by 49 year old Keegan-Michael Key) and Dee Dee Allen (the 71 year old Streep). Because, let’s be real, who in their right mind wouldn’t get with Meryl if they had the chance?

But the idea that a high school with hundreds of teenagers would not have even a single pimple on the whole of the student body is, frankly, ludicrous. This is the problem with having polished twenty-somethings play high schoolers, a problem which has persisted since Grease, the original high school musical: it’s just not convincing.

That being said, Prom is a joy to watch. The slick choreography, sparkly costumes, and unabashed camp make it thoroughly entertaining. Netflix has seen fit to bless us with a film that makes the most of Meryl Streep’s singing and dancing without the mind-numbing heterosexuality of Mamma Mia!

Prom is a love letter to musical theatre; its power to lift people up from the daily grind of ordinary life into a truly extraordinary world. It’s also a sweet homage to all the young lesbians and gays finding the courage to live and love authentically. For this reason, you should definitely watch.

Prom is now streaming on Netflix.

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