Ah, the prom! Is there a moment in American teenage life as dizzy with contradiction? It's the last party of high school but also the first night of playacting at being all grown up. You're invited to dress in stiff formals that look like they came out of your parents' closet. You're invited to dance under spangly fake stars that (if you drink enough punch) are more bedazzling than real ones. It's also an evening when the high school caste system supposedly gets abandoned and everyone is equal except, of course, for the king and queen, who get to make everyone else there feel like peasants. There's such pretense to the prom, yet in a way that's the whole point. Adulthood, even after you've reached it, is its own pretense. Is it any wonder that most of us had a great time on prom night and also hated it a little bit, too?
A mere decade ago, the event was still called ''the prom,'' but in Prom, the shrewdly wholesome and likable new Disney teen movie directed by Joe Nussbaum, it is never referred to as anything but ''prom'' as in, Who are you asking to prom? It's not even fully clear whether prom is now a noun or a verb (are you going to prom? We're going to prom like it's 2099!). And that signals that the prom is no mere party but, in fact, a state of mind.
At first, Prom seems a little innocuous, but this winning after-school trifle has a savvy heart that grows on you. The movie understands why the prom is less important than it seems and also why it still looms so large. In Prom, a dozen high school romantics dream, maneuver, and proposition their way toward the ultimate date night. At the center of it all is Aimee Teegarden's Nova, an adorably freckled overachiever whose bland beau is going to be away (at a college interview) for prom weekend. Dateless, she is drawn to Jesse, the long-haired, motorcycle-riding troublemaker who earns a detention that has him building prom decorations right alongside her. Will Miss Perfect fall for the Leader of the Pack? It helps that he's played by Thomas McDonell, who's not only a dead ringer for the young Johnny Depp but also has a comparable charisma. He's a rare case of true prom royalty: the natural-born kind. B