unruly heart

The Prom Isn’t the Gift to Queer Teens It Thinks It Is

The Netflix version is a straight person’s imagining of a gay love story for a straight audience … made by a gay person? Make it make sense. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

There’s a song in the credits of The Prom that made me wince, and it’s not (only) the one where Meryl Streep raps, “If somebody starts in with new drama, just go high like Michelle Obama.” It’s the song that plays after that one, a narrative ballad sung by James Corden entitled “Simply Love.” In it, Corden sings to the mother of a queer teenager, urging her to accept her gay daughter and see that “love is simply love.” The message is woven amid details from Corden’s character’s own experience of being disowned by his midwestern parents after coming out of the closet. “Early one morning, you’ll wake up and find a note’s been slipped beneath your door. It says the same thing that I wrote in mine: Mom, I love you, but I can’t lie anymore.”

Corden is straight. He ostensibly knows nothing of what it’s like to be a queer person — the anxiety of recognizing that living authentically could destroy relationships you’ve known your whole life and vanish your support network. (Consider this your spoiler warning.) He’s playing Barry Glickman, a flamboyantly gay Broadway has-been who, along with a cohort of other actors whose reputations need rehabbing, head to Indiana. There, they attempt to help Emma, a teenage lesbian whose school canceled prom because she wanted to bring her girlfriend. (Corden is flanked by Meryl Streep, Andrew Rannells, and Nicole Kidman.) On actual Broadway, his role was played by Brooks Ashmanskas, a gay actor who would would go on to receive a Tony nomination for his performance in the short-lived show. Corden’s casting — seemingly a result of his, I guess, star power — is a bummer given the care that clearly went into casting the two out, queer actors as the film’s romantic leads. It’s not to say straight people haven’t pulled off masterful performances in queer roles; Richard Lawson over at Vanity Fair gets into this nicely in his review of the film. The distinction, as a queer viewer, largely boils down to a you-know-it-when-you-see-it judgment. And when you see James Corden in a silver tuxedo singing about being a “big ol’ girl” and how “it gets better” and making jokes about Scruff in small town America … that’s not it. That’s a caricature.

The Corden of it all, along with other details unique to the film version, feels a little like life imitating art. Barry and his crew of New York thespians come to town to fix a problem, only to ultimately make things worse. In a way, so too does this adaptation. The Prom wasn’t a smash on Broadway, but it did develop a cult following of devoted fans, many of them queer, who found hope and joy and safety within its story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was just weird enough to work. This magazine’s then-theater critic called it “giddy, smart, big-hearted.” The 2020 take is still giddy, but Ryan Murphy’s The Prom is all flash. Jewel-toned colors and sequins and dramatic pink and blue bisexual lighting at every turn. Big-hearted … maybe. But smart, no.

On Netflix, newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, for all her sparkling vocal resonance, falls flat at the hands of what appears to be a very singular direction: Keep smiling. It’s bizarre to watch Emma sing her first number, “Just Breathe,” and grin through the whole thing. Even while doing backstroke laps in the school pool. It’s a funny song with dry lyrics about popping Xanax and moving to San Francisco to be among the gays, but all that gets lost behind the never-ending smiling. It makes it hard to invest in Emma’s very real pain, to believe she’s terribly upset at all about not being able to take her girlfriend to the prom. Being the only out gay kid at a conservative high school would likely be painful. Stressful. Rage-inducing. Wearying. It would make you want to scream and cry and vomit at the same time. I was deep in the closet at my own conservative high school and even that experience, despite its relative safety, didn’t elicit ear-to-ear happiness on the regular.

When the mean girls on the cheerleading squad leave a nasty note in her locker, Emma smiles while calling them out in the hallway. (If you’re thinking to yourself, maybe the smiling is a bit — an act to show the pain we hide from the world à la The Last Five Years’s “See I’m Smiling” — think again.) None of this is helped by the fact that she’s dressed up in outrageous combinations of beanies and stripes, a look that I found myself likening to a lesbian Smee from Peter Pan. Or one of those adults who go to Disney World and style their outfits to look like characters on the down low.

The movie is also hurt by a number of adaptational changes that family-friendly-up the story and take out much of the conflict. Barry’s final line in the song “Changing Lives,” when he announces that the squad is heading for Indiana, becomes a mundane aside about starting a fight. It’s a change from “Now let’s go help that dyke,” which, while not the most PC of lines, felt like such an incredibly fitting thing for a middle-age, out-of-touch theater queen to say. Like, the show was operating on multiple levels of queer understanding. It was the first moment I really remember laughing in the audience. Thinking, Heh, there might be some there there. These sorts of changes appear over and over in the film. Broadly speaking, Barry and his colleagues are no longer truly terrible people with room to grow emotionally; instead, they all have slightly tarnished hearts of gold from the jump. A musical number performed at a monster truck rally no longer takes a turn for the ridiculous when the entire ensemble reveals they are wearing “We Are All Lesbians” shirts in glittery lettering. (I’ve had one tacked to my office cubicle for years.) Where once you got edge and specificity, now you just get predictability.

Emma’s girlfriend is Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose), your textbook femme cheerleader with straight A’s and a helicopter mom (Kerry Washington) who helms the PTA. Alyssa is closeted, afraid of how her “gay is a lifestyle choice mother will react if she admits she’s been dating Emma in secret. In the stage show, Alyssa comes out to her mother in the end, and we get the same weepy scene in the film. Mrs. Greene tells her daughter she doesn’t want her to have a “hard life.” “It’s already hard,” Alyssa tells her mom, who, choking back tears, says they’ll talk about it at home and leaves. On Broadway, that was it. Alyssa and Emma go to prom together and Mrs. Greene reappears after the final number solely to take a bow. In Murphy’s version, Mrs. Greene turns her homophobic self around in record time. She too comes to the prom — dressed in full sequins, because apparently everyone in this town in Indiana has a fully bedazzled ensemble at the ready — and tells her daughter she’ll always love her, no matter what. They all dance the show’s final number. (In a Q&A after a digital premiere of The Prom, Washington mentioned she really wanted to be in that final dance scene and pushed to be included.) It’s a lovely moment, sure, but it also undoes an entire film’s worth of character development in seconds.

Even more jarring is the film’s addition of a familial reconciliation plot for Barry. Realizing that Barry is from nearby-ish Ohio, Meryl Streep — whose character Dee Dee is something of an amalgamation of the great divas of Broadway — suggests he call his parents. Barry, emotionally, tells her no; that his parents essentially threw him away. He ran away from home before they could make good on their threats of dangerous conversion therapy. “Let your parents see who you are before it’s too late,” Dee Dee says. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it.” “I’m not the one who should have regrets. I was the kid, I was the kid,” Barry tells her, seemingly putting an end to it. And that should have been the end of it. Barry’s allowed to never want to see his parents again and he doesn’t have to feel any kind of way about it. It’s wrong of Dee Dee to insinuate that he’ll regret it if he doesn’t at least try to patch things up with his parents — a reflection of the heteronormative belief in the nuclear family above all other bonds — as though he has anything to make amends for. (This is supposed to be an action that makes us like Dee Dee more and see her as somebody who is becoming a kinder, better version of herself.)

Later on, Barry’s mother appears. She’s sobbing and begging her son for forgiveness. She only came because Dee Dee called her. “I knew you couldn’t do it on your own,” Dee Dee tells Barry. It’s great that Barry gets to forge a new relationship with his mother, that she’ll maybe finally take the opportunity to get to know and love her son for who he is. But the pleas for forgiveness ring a little hollow knowing she wasn’t actually sorry enough to pick up a phone or get on a bus or a plane to tell her son that of her own volition. Barry’s father is noticeably absent. He’s “just not there yet,” Barry’s mother says, because apparently even though she’s come around, she’s not come around enough to tell her husband he’s wrong and should get over it or else. Meaning Barry is saddled not only with his mother begging for forgiveness, but also the knowledge that he was right. His father still does not want him.

In this Prom, every queer lead character winds up with some form of a loving, accepting biological family. When Emma and Alyssa kiss in the center of the gym, Mrs. Greene is beside them, offering an accepting smile and nod. Barry and his mother watch nearby, Barry’s arm draped around her shoulder like they’re catching up on decades of missed hugs. Even Emma — and this, it should be noted, is not a change from the source material — has her grandmother, who took her in with open arms after her parents kicked her out. Queer people so often build their families anew, pieced together from found community, friends who become family. Bonds forged on a deep understanding and shared life experience. It’s a beautiful tradition, if one all too often rooted in trauma.

The best moment in the film comes in “Unruly Heart.” The number was particularly heartstring tugging on Broadway, but after an hour and a half of being inundated with overstatements in the film, the number’s quiet power is cast in much sharper relief on Netflix. Emma, in a very Gen-Z attempt to win over her community, pours her heart out into a video of her singing an original song. The song goes viral, and we watch as other LGBTQ+ kids reply and comment with their own stories and struggles, joining in for one big final chorus: “Nobody out there ever gets to define the life I’m meant to lead with this unruly heart of mine.” It’s sappy, but it gets me every time. There’s something about a bunch of queer kids sitting in their bedrooms, feeling their feelings and looking for answers and hope and community on YouTube that feels spot on.

Which brings us back to Corden’s credits song. It’s possible it was written as Barry’s emotional pitch to Mrs. Greene not to abandon her daughter, lest their relationship go the way of his own family. But the impulse to give everyone a happy ending undermines the very community this film is supposed to serve. (Murphy, coincidentally, was once himself a gay teenager in Indiana.) Suddenly, Alyssa’s extremely valid fears were for nothing. That her mother’s vocal homophobia was such a temporary state of hatred renders much of the movie’s central tension pointless. The Prom suffers from too much it-gets-better-ism, with a very limited scope of understanding of exactly how it can, and does, get better for queer people.

The Prom Isn’t the Gift to Queer Teens It Thinks It Is