I’m sure we can all agree that Netflix has been a comforting presence for many of us during these hard times, and has personally been instrumental in my very thin grip on sanity. This year, they have churned out a plethora of television shows and movies that are utterly amazing to say the least, but Ryan Murphy’s newest movie-musical The Prom snatches the crown. Pardon the pun. The Prom is the tale of a midwestern teenage girl named Emma, who’s been exiled from her high school prom by her homophobic classmates after she tries to bring her girlfriend to their sacred dance. All seems futile, until a group of washed-up broadway stars catch wind of this travesty, and in order to avoid fading into irrelevance, they decide to help Emma triumph over her bigoted counterparts. Thus begins a heartwarming story filled with laughter, adversity, and lots and lots of sequin.
I watched this movie with my partner, who is quite the singer himself, and to say that we enjoyed every single minute of this movie would be quite the understatement. Ryan Murphy is known for his work in storytelling, and bringing queer stories to life in a very powerful, yet entertaining way; and this film did not disappoint. A coming of age film about a queer teen from a small town, who’s forced to face bigots and fight for their equality is a storyline that we have seen plenty of times. However, those films mainly focused on the viewpoint of a cisgender man, who normally were white men as well. And while I understand the pressures of dealing with homophobia at such a young age, in 2020, it’s hard to empathize with a cis white man. Therefore, it was quite refreshing to see this told through the lens of a lesbian girl, who not only had to face the pressure of not only homophobia, but also sexism as well. Emma, played by rising starlet Jo Ellen Pellman, was a delight of an actor, despite her perpetual grin that became more and more frightening as the movie went on (especially during some of her more somber musical numbers). Her romance with her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (portrayed by Ariana DeBose) was captivating and complex, because even when you wanted to hate Alyssa for her refusal to be honest with her friends and family about her sexuality, once she opens up about her pressure to be perfect in the eyes of her hard-working single mother, you can’t help but feel for the girl. Furthermore, on top of her embodying the essence of an optimistic high school teenager ready to take on the world, Pellman is also on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, which is just the cherry on top to see a queer story being portrayed by someone who actually is queer. James Corden, I’m looking at you.
Speaking of casting, this movie garnered much popularity and excitement leading up the premiere based solely on the cast. Give me a movie with Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, and the iconic Meryl Streep, and you’ll have a fan before any of them has a chance to speak their lines. Streep and Kidman portrayed Dee Dee Allen & Angie Dickenson, two of the three Broadway stars who traveled to Indiana to help Emma deal with the hatred from her hometown. Dee Dee Allen was an over-the-top diva who had more years on the stage underneath her than she had drinks in a night, hellbent on keeping her spot as the grande dame diva of New York City. While Angie on the other hand was an actor perpetually stuck in the chorus line, and no matter how hard she kicked, could never land her dream role as Roxie Hart. The two, along with Trent Oliver (portrayed by Andrew Rannells) a Juilliard graduate, and Barry Glickman (portrayed by James Corden) Dee Dee’s right hand gay, made up an extraordinarily talented cast.
Even though Ryan Murphy did quite a good job of making sure Pellman’s character did not get lost in the shuffle of powerhouse performances and characters, this was still without a doubt Meryl Streep’s show hands down. We’re all very aware of Meryl’s acting abilities, but I wasn’t aware of how talented of a singer and dancer she was until this movie. Her range was incredible, and she showed off how well she can complete an 8-count dance routine although out the movie, particularly in her most memorable musical numbers “It’s Not About Me” & “The Lady’s Improving”. Furthermore, as a fan of musical theatre and someone who knows their way around a show tune, I appreciated the many references to other legendary Broadway musicals that are staples in the New York City theatre circuit. From The Book of Mormon, to Chicago, Murphy delivered songs that had an air of nostalgia, but were also fresh and fit perfectly with the premise of The Prom.
While I am giving so much praise to this movie, even the clearest of skin is prone to a breakout, and the sole pimple on an otherwise smooth surface of a film was James Corden portrayal of a gay man. Although James Corden’s performance in The Prom was great and his singing ability was outstanding, I can’t help but imagine that this role could’ve been done just as much justice, if not more, by someone who truly identifies with the struggle of being a gay kid growing up in a small-minded town. Barry Glickman, Corden’s character, has a tear-jerking heart-to-heart moment with his mother, who previously rejected him after he came out of the closet in high school. And after Dee Dee encourages him to patch things up with her seeing as they are close-ish to Ohio, where his mother resides, his mother surprises him at Emma’s high school and the two have a tear-filled and heart-warming reconciliation. Although this moment was sweet, it felt insincere and the adoration that many gave Corden for this moment seemed misplaced. Earlier in the movie, Barry shares the feelings of loneliness and rejection he felt after his parents and classmates didn’t accept him for being gay, with Dee Dee, which made this moment with his mother even more powerful. Corden, being a straight man, truly doesn’t understand the pain and emotions that a gay man has to endure, after their own parents refuse to accept who they were born to be. He can play it in a movie, but will never be able to truly connect with this experience. And although this has been a consistent trend in Hollywood, I was hoping that Murphy would give a gay man the opportunity to portray an experience only someone queer could connect to, as he’s done previously (Pose, etc). Actors like Dan Levy and Billy Eichner, are just a few choices from the onslaught of gay men who Murphy could’ve called to play Barry. But alas, the show must go on.
Overall, this was the kind of campy, feel-good movie that makes my inner theatre queen light up and sparkle, brighter than the many sequin dresses worn throughout the movie. Ryan Murphy has become synonymous with flamboyant yet well thought out films, and even when the plot is a reprise of something that’s been done before, he was still able to put his own twist on it. It was a showcase for the already established acting giants, such as Streep, Kidman, and Washington, but also a showcase for some up-and-coming stars, such as Pellman and DeBose, who I’m sure we will see more from in the future. Even though this holiday season may be bleak, if you’re looking to add a little, or a lot, of shine to your end of the year activities, I definitely recommend checking out The Prom on Netflix.