Netflix’s “The Prom” was launched with all the promises of an A-list cast featuring performances from Meryl Streep to Nicole Kidman in an all-star line-up that’s hard to go wrong. Unfortunately, however, a lot did.
To be fair, I only learned the production was a film adaptation of a Broadway musical after watching the movie, so the following criticisms might very well rest more with stage show writers Bob Martin and Chad Beuelin than the Netflix director, Ryan Murphy. The musical premiered on Broadway in October of 2018 and only ran for less than a year.
Having not seen the live performance, I don’t write this knowing what differences played out on screen versus on stage. Still, what was presented onscreen to Netflix’s more than 73 million subscribers across the country is fair game for criticism.
The premise of the film preaching a lesson about tolerance and inclusivity undermined its primary message from the start. It begins by dropping a group of struggling narcissistic Broadway performers into an Indiana “hick town” to engage in celebrity activism explicitly aiming only to enhance their own popularity.
Parents in Edgewater, Indiana chose to cancel the high school prom over the attendance of a lesbian student named Emma who sought tickets with a female date. The school quickly became the subject of national controversy. The film exhaustively painted the town’s residents as bigoted Bible-thumping homophobes weaponizing their religion to oppress others who are different.
While the idea that a high school would cancel the entire prom just to bar a single lesbian couple from attending might have played as a realistic storyline some decades ago, the narrative was clearly driven by a motive to characterize the small-town residents as intolerant creatures. The notion that parents might call off such a signature event not only bears no basis in reality but undercuts the tolerant message of the film by depicting those it tries to convince as irredeemably hateful from the start.
Within the first 20 minutes of the film, Emma is being barreled by dodgeballs hurled at her by homophobic peers. Emma sings with disdain of her Indiana surroundings while glowing with a reference to San Francisco as a haven for her escape: “Note to self, don’t be gay in Indiana… There are places where it’s in to be out, maybe San Francisco or thereabout.”
I won’t deny there are certain challenges to growing up gay in the Midwest not present in major metropolitan areas on the coasts. I should know. I moved from central Ohio to Washington D.C., where I lived for five years before moving to Denver this summer.
But the film takes the challenges to the extreme by amplifying a select minority of people present in every community. This raises the homophobic hysteria to the point where it’s hard to take the production very seriously. The abject vilification of ordinary people living in a small midwestern town, meanwhile, only serves to further divide a culturally polarized country.
At one point, a group of students was explaining to a struggling Broadway performer named Trent at a local mall that they were good people who went to church and just wished to stick to the Bible in rejecting Emma from their own high school dance. When the kids told Trent, “We don’t have a drama program,” Trent snaps, “that explains your general lack of empathy,” as if drama is the only such medium to teach it.
Given the corniness of the film, it’s possible or even likely that its illustration of small-town Indiana infected with over-the-top homophobia was on purpose featuring circumstances that a 2020 audience knows would never happen. Even if that is the case, the millions of viewers who might not have ever stepped in a midwestern state, let alone a rural community in “flyover country,” risk confirmation of their biases of the people who live there, which translates into the misunderstanding of their views.
One of the only aspects of the film its writers got right was its mockery of celebrity feel-good activism who engage in self-righteous acts of political defiance to enhance their own fame. The parody of superstar advocacy is a rare feat taken in few major productions such as “Team America World Police.”
Others have offered criticism of James Corden’s performances as extreme in another light, complaining that the hyper-flamboyant stereotype of gay men portrayed by Corden in a gay-acceptance movie was “homophobic.” It’s always ironic when the woke eat the woke.