Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden Confront Small-Town Bigotry in Ryan Murphy’s ‘The Prom’

Prom is a fun milestone for most high school seniors, but can also lead to heartbreak and stress for those who do not fit a certain mold. Now, Ryan Murphy takes back what should be a magical evening for every teen in his latest Netflix feature, a splashy musical simply called “The Prom.” Newcomers Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose join forces with the always luminous Meryl Streep, lovable James Corden, radiant Nicole Kidman and more to shake up a small Indiana town and subvert a few musical tropes along the way.

“The Prom” begins with an injustice, as rather than allow her to attend prom with a same-sex date, the PTA at Emma Nolan’s (Pellman) high school vote to cancel the dance altogether. To make matters worse, the call for this bigoted action was led by Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), the PTA president who also happens to be the mother of Alyssa (DeBose), Emma’s closeted girlfriend. The pair were planning on making their debut as a couple at the prom, but now openly-gay Emma has been left out to dry.

Meanwhile, Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) have just received the worst reviews of their respective careers for their ill-advised musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Together with Angie Dickinson (Kidman), a chorus girl who has never gotten a starring role, and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a former sitcom star who now tends bar, they decide to take up a cause in order to generate positive publicity. After Angie learns about Emma on Twitter, the foursome hastily head to Edgewater, Indiana to teach those backwards hicks a lesson about tolerance.

Driven by narcissism rather than altruism, Dee Dee and company hit a tone deaf note as soon as they arrive in Indiana. However, Dee Dee is able to win over Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), the principal of Emma’s high school who is on her side. Tom is also the rare straight male Broadway superfan, and he and Dee Dee end up embarking on a dating relationship. Despite their 22-year age difference, Streep and Key turn out to be the sweet onscreen couple that we didn’t know we needed, although their romance hits a snag due to Dee Dee’s extreme self-involvement, something she is motivated to overcome.

Barry, who is “gayer than a bucket of wigs,” finds purpose in mentoring Emma, as does Angie. The young woman never wanted to be a political symbol or anywhere near a spotlight, but with the help of her new friends, she grows more confident and poised. Emma seems to win a victory when the PTA is forced to reverse their decision, partly due to the exposure brought by Dee Dee and the others. However, in a cruel twist, the location of the official prom is changed without her knowledge.

In many ways, “The Prom” is like an old-school Hollywood musical, complete with big musical numbers, eye-catching costumes and sets, and plenty of romance. However, the lyrics to most of the songs are rather snarky and even subversive. One memorable number involves Trent dancing around the mall and singing to Emma’s close-minded classmates, who claim to be good Christians, about some of the more unsavory rules in the Bible that they choose to ignore while conveniently condemning Emma.

There are also plenty of pure moments in “The Prom,” particularly between Emma and Alyssa. The latter, like a lot of teens nowadays, is under immense pressure from her mother to be perfect, and her being secretly gay adds to her stress. Emma ends up staying true to herself, while also taking some of what she learned from the foursome, when she expresses herself through song in a moving YouTube video that ends up going viral. 

“The Prom” culminates on a note of pure joy, another prom, one that is inclusive and open to all local high schoolers. While the film certainly offers the kind of feel-good high we need right now, it goes deeper, as each major character finds him or herself working through his or her own prejudices, traumas, or both. While Dee Dee works through her issues concerning her celebrity and past heartbreak, Barry finds himself confronted with his own past as a closeted Ohio teen and his unresolved issues with his parents.

The Prom” begins streaming Dec. 11 on Netflix.