Film review: That four letter word…

That's right. He's taken off his shirt. Gasp. Swoon.

In a Disney film, you can’t just ask someone to prom. You have to stage an elaborate proposal. You write it in chalk on the sidewalk, in flower petals on a locker or on the bare, hairless chests of teenage boys – just four magical letters and a punctuation mark: “Prom?”

Certainly, this high school exercise must be exaggerated for Disney’s purposes. But, after I left the screening of the studio’s new film Prom, I saw a note printed in one of Toronto’s free daily newspapers: “Lauren, I love you so much. Thank you for two perfect years. Will you go to prom with me? From Liam.” Could high school really be this rosy?

Hoping for an equally romantic proposal in director Joe Nussbaum’s film is class president Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden, Friday Night Lights). She’s waiting for clean-cut Brandon (Jonathan Keltz) to ask her to the dance. They have Advanced Placement classes together and were swim team co-captains. So, on paper, they’re perfect for each other. Brandon, however, has spent all of his time studying for Princeton, rather than studying the opposite sex, so he invites Nova to “carpool” to prom.

A frustrated Nova flops face down on her bed and unleashes a good muffled scream. (Teegarden does her fair share of screaming in Scream 4, too.) But her horrors in Prom have only just begun. The next tragedy involves a fire. Before your mind wanders to Stephen King’s Carrie – this is Disney, after all – someone just accidentally sets ablaze a shed, destroying all the prom decorations.

With three weeks to go before the big night, Nova must recreate the decorations, with one caveat/opportunity for romantic intrigue. The principal orders long-haired, motorcycle-riding bad boy Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell) to help hang twinkly lights and cut out gold stars, or else – wait for it – he doesn’t graduate.

This doozy of a plot, which sounds like a half-hearted episode of Saved By the Bell, or perhaps a Disney Channel sitcom, was devised by screenwriter Katie Wech, in her feature film debut. Nussbaum, whose previous teen comedies include Sydney White, Sleepover and American Pie Presents the Naked Mile, does not have the advantage of a charismatic Amanda Bynes or a hilarious Jane Lynch or even an evil Sara Paxton. Just an ensemble cast of fresh-faced, relative unknowns.

In addition to our two heroes, there are prom king Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) and queen Jordan (Kylie Bunbury), who are on the rocks because Tyler isn’t being honest about his other female prospects; long-time couple Mei (Yin Chang) and Justin (Jared Kusnitz) who are also on the rocks because Mei isn’t being honest about her academic prospects; and finally best friends Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) and Corey (Cameron Monaghan), who are – you guessed it – on the rocks because Lucas isn’t being honest with himself about his prospects with beautiful lab partner Simone (Danielle Campbell).

Then there’s Rolo (JoeAdler), whose brain is as mushy as the chocolate-caramel treat he eats; and Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) a younger version of John Cusack who’s on the hunt for a date and gets the best lines (“I’m really fun. I swear. I have references”), which he delivers with perfectly awkward, sing-song articulation.

“Prom. It’s like the Olympics of high school. You wait four years, three people have a good time and everybody else gets to live on with shattered dreams,” he says.

No one expects any shattered dreams in Nussbaum’s film, though. While the cast is decent, you’ll follow their predictable, happy stories with as much interest as a father shopping for prom dresses.

Although Teegarden and McDonell have a way of adding charm to the cheese, most of it can’t be helped, including the scene where Jesse removes his shirt to carry a few heavy columns (he’s still wearing a tank top – this is Disney, after all).

So you may ask me, in the simplest terms (using four letters and a punctuation mark): Prom?

My answer: See the film, but only if you are Lauren or Liam from Toronto. For anyone whose starry dreams have already been shattered by reality – essentially, anyone over the age of 18 – this Prom is as dull as over-watered party punch.

Originally published in the National Post April 29, 2011.

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