World's Best Prom, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/03/06 20:22:47
Every Spring in the mid-size town of Racine, Wisconsin, students at seven local high schools attend their proms, which are all held on the same night. Then, somewhere around 9 PM or so, all those proms end, and all the students head off to… well, I suppose you could call it a superprom. It’s a dance/festival/party thrown by the city, managed by the Rotary Club, a tradition that goes back some five decades. Students arrive in a parade of cars and make their way up the red carpet, while onlookers cheer them on from the bleachers, just like at the Oscars. The whole thing’s televised. In the past, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey have played at this event. Extravagance is key; one year, a couple arrived on the back of an elephant.So yes, the title of the documentary “The World’s Best Prom” is quite apt. The film, directed by Chris Talbott and Ari Vena and produced by the New York-based arts group OVO, follows several members of Racine’s class of 2000 as they prepare for the Big Night. (The film began as a 17-minute short, and the filmmakers spent the past four years editing and developing it into an 80-minute feature.) Focus is mostly given to three students: Tonya, a brilliant overachiever who’s attending the prom with an ex-boyfriend; Dori, whose plans for lavishness are demoted to dinner in a friend’s basement; and Ben, a quarterback struggling to graduate, his drop-out older brother serving as inspiration.
Supplementing these portraits are interviews with other students (my favorite being the guy who arrives at prom in what appears to be a Civil War costume) and locals - mostly parents and grandparents who attended Racine’s prom years ago and remember when the city was a booming economic paradise. All that remains now are mostly retail jobs, and many seniors wind up enlisting in the Armed Forces as a best way out. This combo helps make Racine stand in for most of America.
And in that regard, Racine’s prom becomes every prom. What’s on display here is the Great American Ritual, and the kids’ dilemmas - what to wear, where to eat, whom to date - echo throughout every high school in the country. It’s timeless, too; only the music and fashions seem to change over the years, while attitudes remain the same. (Heck, even the themes are constant: the 2000 prom goes with the familiar Eric Clapton tune “Wonderful Tonight.”) By giving things something of a universal feel, Talbott and Vena allow the film to kick start a wave of nostalgia in every viewer. We may be watching their prom, but we’re bound to start thinking of our own. And yes, the parents are quite willing to admit that what they did at their prom is exactly what you did at your prom - and exactly what they hope their own kids don’t do at their prom.
Of course, your reactions to the film may vary depending on your reactions to proms in general. Some may view Racine’s indulgences and fanaticisms with great fondness, while others may find them tacky and quite horrifying. The filmmakers wisely keep commentary out of it, letting the event and the kids speak for themselves. It helps that several of those involved in the film, including Talbott, grew up in Racine, and as such, they treat the event with equal parts respect and incredulity, one never overpowering the other.
Personally, I found most of what was on display fascinatingly tacky, a cool-kid world on disturbing overload. The notions of, say, a fake tan and a ride in a stretch Hummer as the pinnacle of cool made me woozy, while the barrage of footage of preening, screaming boys declaring their machismo made me want to slap some sense into these kids. But “The World’s Best Prom” works exactly because it does not lead me to that belief. Again, Talbott and Vena remain surprisingly neutral, leaving the kids to win us over or disgust us with their own words.
By doing so, it draws us deeper and deeper into these kids’ worlds. You can’t help but beam with pride during the closing credits, as a four-years-later update reveals what has become of Tonya. Seeing the previously deluded Dori do a little growing up is wonderful, too; her final comments best describe the film - and high school living in general: “It was like our last free experience.”That it is. Prom is the final parade of youth, and “The World’s Best Prom” captures all that is glorious and all that is idiotic about that parade. It’s more fascinating than I ever thought prom could be.
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