Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Prom Pact’ is a Rom-Com About Friendship

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Prom Pact proves that D+ original movies are becoming a breed unto their own. Smartly written with as much heart as intelligence, the film’s two lead characters are friends and nothing more. What’s even more refreshing; it’s a Disney movie where both parents are alive, and heaven to Murgatroyd, teenagers talk about sex.

Anya Adams, who also penned the script, imbues Prom Pact with a light-hearted tribute to the 80s without drowning itself in homages and pop-culture references. Happily, for all the tropes and cliches she pulls out, Adams finds little ways to either subvert them or put them in a fresh light. Clearly, she is a student of the genre, and the labor of love shows in how the characters express themselves.

prom pact
Ben (Milo Manheim) and BFF Mandy (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) go to Prom

Mandy Yang (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) has one goal in life, and it’s not to date the hunky jock Graham Lansing (Blake Draper). Mandy is a Rory Gilmore 2.0, obsessed with getting into Harvard; social life be damned. Her guidance counselor Ms. Chen (Margaret Cho), would love it if she even looked at another college, but sadly, Mandy only has eyes for Boston.

The title comes from a promise between Mandy and her best friend Ben Plunkett (Milo Manheim), known as “No Nuts” Plunkett, because of his nut allergy, to go to prom as each other’s date. In a nice little twist, this is not one of those friendships where Ben harbors a secret crush on his best friend but rather harbors a not-so-secret crush on the popular cheerleader LaToya Reynolds (Monique Green). There’s a cute running gag that everyone refers to the popular girl by her full name escalating to Ben, shouting it in nervous excitement whenever he sees her and startling her.

So, what happens when Harvard puts Mandy on the waiting list? Ms. Chen suggests a letter of recommendation. Wouldn’t you know it, Graham’s father is a sitting Senator and Harvard alum, and indeed a letter from him would help her get in.

To Adams’ credit, Mandy’s plan, which she cooks up with the help of Ben, is less devious and underhanded than normally get concocted in these movies. Her plan is for her and Ben to go to a party, ingratiate themselves with Graham, get herself hired as a tutor, and use their friendship to get his dad to write a letter of recommendation. Not the greatest plan, but in the grand scheme of a genre that typically has men treating women as literal prizes, having a teenage girl use a guy’s parents as a step-stool for college doesn’t rank that high of crimes and misdemeanors characters have committed in a high school rom-com.

Adams also doesn’t shy away from the fact that teenagers are horny. While Prom Pact is hardly Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Say Anything, the latter being referenced at least twice, sex exists and is even joked about, which for a Disney film, D+ or otherwise, is saying something. 

Mrs. Chen (Margaret Cho) roasts Mandy (Lee)

Mandy ogles a shirtless Graham, walks in on two boys making out, and Ben’s freshman coworker gives him a hard time about not being a senior because he hasn’t had sex. Granted, no teenager says, “Have you ever put your P in a V?” But that is how a teenager would talk in a movie paying homage to 80s movies, not to mention it’s arguably just as juvenile as something a real fifteen-year-old would say.

I enjoyed listening to the characters talk as Adams’ characters have something to say. For example, Graham reveals that he coaches at a rec center for disadvantaged youth and, seeing Mandy’s shocked expression, quips, “Just because I don’t advertise it on my tee-shirt doesn’t mean I’m not a good person.” These aren’t trite cardboard cutouts but teenagers with desires and beliefs who aren’t afraid to speak about them.

Lee is a whirlwind of an actor, her elastic face speaking volumes even when she isn’t. Her Mandy is a force of nature, scaring off most other people and annoying those she doesn’t frighten. Lee’s energy is one thing, but how she handles Adams’ dialogue is an acrobatic feat. 

But it’s her chemistry with Draper’s Graham that I immensely enjoyed. The duo have a natural friction when the movie begins, borne out of petty judgments and misunderstandings, that slowly begins to give way to realizing the other person is more than the parts of their social media. The scene where Graham teaches Mandy how to free-throw sparkles with tension. Partly because we know this scene; we’ve seen it a thousand times, but Lee and Draper make it work. There’s a palpable tension in the air during their scenes.

Adams makes quick work of quickly revealing the idea of Graham and Graham, the actual person. She gives us little moments that show a young boy unhappy with his life, not because of his privilege but because of a Father who expects nothing of him and a school that seems more obsessed with being close to him than knowing him. 

While at dinner with Graham and his mother, Ms. Lansing (Chelah Horsdal), Mandy hears about all the air-heads Garahm has dated. Mandy laughs it off but notices how Graham sticks up for them. With these little moments, Adams and Blake show us the Graham people refuse to see, simply because he is pretty, athletic, and the son of a Senator.

Likewise, Ben and LaToya’s scenes are sweet, although the tension comes from an altogether more pure place. Mandy and Graham are the jock and the nerd, transgressing class and social status in a classic hate-to-love relationship. In contrast, Ben and Latoya’s scenes are comedic gems of goofy sweetness. It’s evident that LaToya likes Ben and even thinks he’s cute, but Ben is so nervous that he’s running a race he’s already won.

But Adams isn’t just interested in whether Mandy, Graham, Ben, and LaToya will get together. Prom Pact, after all, is about a promise two friends make and how that promise gets broken so Mandy can chase Harvard. The engine that keeps Prom Pact going is how Mandy and Ben, lifetime best friends, drift apart as they each pursue their path. 

It is a trial run for the end of the school year, as Harvard is Mandy’s future, not Ben’s. Moreover, Adams finds ways to mine what would in any other film be a silly pact, a lot of drama-both comedic and serious, in how Mandy and Ben navigate their new life while also trying to figure out how to make time for each other. Because now it’s not just Mandy and Ben, but it’s Ben, LaToya, Mandy, and Graham, meaning promises and explanations will change because that’s how life works.

Prom Pact could have spent more time on Ben and Latoya, especially in how LaToya expressed her growing regret about spending her free time being popular instead of doing things she wanted to do. Adams’ script juggles a lot of little arcs, but it would have been nice to get a teensy bit more of Green’s LaToya coming into her own.

Graham (Blake Draper) and Mandy (Lee) not at prom

The visual language of Prom Pact may not be as distinct or stylistic as Chang Can Dunk or Stargirl. But Clark Mathis’ frames are never dull. Whether it’s the stage of the characters or choosing to have the camera be as acrobatic as the cheerleaders, it may not be flashy, but it nonetheless serves the story and is never dull. Moreover, there’s a moment when the camera glides past Ben and Graham, each standing confused as Mandy and LaToya storm off. The two are looking off at opposite sides of the camera. It is a classic bit of frame composition but nails the moment of two teenagers who don’t know each other but find themselves in similar situations.

Prom Pact may be an homage to teen rom-com of the past, especially the 80s. However, the tributes are just the dressing; underneath all the prom proposals and running gags about the backroom bloodthirsty Drum Major politics, Adams shows us real teenagers and how being a Senior is fun and scary. 

Adams’ dialogue has a rhythm and an edge that keeps the energy of Prom Pact bubbling. Even if you can see what’s coming, you’ll still feel the onset of empathic cringe for the characters. I rate a rom-com by how much I clap or smile like a goofball when the couple gets together. I clapped for Ben and LaToya and smiled like a goofball for Mandy and Graham. Prom Pact has an infectious charm, and her characters have a remarkable vitality not typically seen in teenage rom-com. 

Images courtesy of D+

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