The World’s Best Prom ought to be a forgettable failure. The title sells the wrong film, and the climax is the most boring part of the movie. But if a little honesty goes a long way, then the heart of the movie does much to make up for the rest of it. For in the middle is a timeless portrait of an American rite of passage.
The subject of this niche documentary is the Racine, Wisconsin, prom. Is it really the “world’s best” prom? Maybe. There are half a dozen high schools in Racine, and they all join for a citywide after-prom party, so it’s big. And the early minutes of the documentary show some impressive photos of jazz giants Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich playing for the hep Racine cats in the 1940s and 1950s.
But the movie stops justifying its title almost as soon as it starts. The subject switches quickly from “world’s best” to the specific pre-prom jitters of a handful of teenagers. The movie ends, not with a Q.E.D. proving Racine is the “best”, but with bad video footage from a prom, five years ago, in a town where most of us don’t live.
The World’s Best Prom, then, is almost completely disposable. If you were in the class of 2000 in Racine, you may want to buy a copy of the DVD, but the rest of us will be content to have missed this movie completely.
There is one interesting and redeeming quality to The World’s Best Prom, however. The middle section of the movie is well made, it moves quickly enough to hold the interest of a patient audience, and it paints a portrait as American as Norman Rockwell. The movie was shot before September 11, which puts it in a far-distant, golden past (even though it was only six years ago) that gives the movie a timeless feeling.
The filmmakers stayed with the students long enough to capture some of them in their natural environment. We learn to like them on their own terms. Tonya, for example, is a very down-to-earth high schooler. She works on the decorations for the prom, and she comes across as genuine, humble, and decent. Ben and his older brother are troublemakers, and they know it, but Ben’s brother seems to hope that Ben won’t make the same mistakes he did. The catholic-school girl seems fairly square in her first interview, but by the end she’s talking about marijuana, sex, and her disappointingly mundane, Midwestern dinner plans: she and her friends will dine in her aunt’s basement and they have to pay $4 each for the cost of the chicken breasts.
The parents of Racine sense how exciting the prom is for their kids, but also how sad it is that this should seem exciting. The best of the parents want something better for their kids, encouraging them to get out of Racine and see the world. They know that the world is bigger than their home town, and they want their kids to know it too. Other parents are worried, vaguely, about their kids’ prom night, although few of them spell it out for us. Luckily the son of the tanning salon owner is frank on-camera: for him, prom is all about sex, and he plans to score.
The climax of the movie is the prom itself. For a climax, it’s pretty boring. Those who actually attended might find it interesting, but for the average movie audience, it’s poison. The kids we came to know and like are now hiding behind their formal attire and their nervousness. The lighting is worse and the camera is farther away from the action. The teens may be having fun, but for audiences, the fun is over long before the movie is.
The ending is somewhat saved by the “where are they now” segment over the credits (yes, the salon owner’s son scored, sort of), but really, the ending is bad, and the movie as a whole has to be called a failure. That’s not to say that it’s all bad; just that the sum of the parts isn’t quite enough to justify hunting this movie down on DVD.
Still, considering the movie’s niche appeal and its obviously limited budget, I’ve seen much worse.