By Rory L. Aronsky | June 23, 2003

I didn’t bother going to my high school prom because there was really nothing about it that was worth shelling out an exorbitant amount of money for an event where I would get dressed up and essentially spent 4 hours standing around.
Director Hali Lee went to her prom as well and remembers how she was told that prom would be one of the most important nights in her life and one of the most memorable. She did everything to the letter, such as picking out the dress, the date, the corsage and going to the prom. The only thing she remembered was the hangover she had the next morning. With this in mind once again, she ruminates through her own narration about whether she did anything wrong that didn’t bring the intended effect to her prom. She decides to find out what makes this $2 billion dollar consumer industry and high-school tradition what it is.
With co-director Peter von Ziegesar, she goes back to her old stomping grounds of Kansas City and creates a very interesting look at prom, without all the sugary residue of the event that’s found in countless Hollywood films. This is because two of the places she profiles are rather unique in their approach to prom, although one keeps the dancing aspect while the other drops it completely.
After an opening montage of people commenting on prom, including one naysayer who we learn about later on, the first stop is Westport High School where the race for prom king and queen is under way. A guy named Smurf has won countless honors from his peers and hopes that the title of prom king will be his as well. With what follows, Westport is the standard when it comes time prom as compared to what comes next.
In the middle of all this, Lee She says that prom “started out as a democratic variation on an aristocratic tradition. Essentially, prom is a debutante ball for the common folk.” Next is Centerplace Restoration School (CPRS) in Independence, Missouri, and all that can be said is….wow. This is a religious school but to me, it seems to be a school that’s more obsessed with any potential sexual happenings than any other school when it comes to prom, though I am sure there are more schools like this around the country. There are actual guidelines to prom dresses: No spaghetti straps, no strapless dresses, no CLEAVAGE…no nothing on that end. Prom king and queen is not a “popularity” contest, but is rather based on Christian values such as courtesy, brotherly love, kindness, being friends to others regardless of their looks and who aren’t selfish. We meet Nick, who does have a son (though not seen on screen) and regrets his bad decision that caused that and reveals that he plans to abstain from the horizontal cha-cha until he marries. He also is a deacon in his church and shows us the place where he, along with many other people, believe that God will come down and live among the people for the millennium and a spot has already been selected to build a church for Him. Uh, yeah…on to the next place.
Passages is a place of progress for those who are not of the boy/girl type. Gay, lesbian, bi, curious, and transsexual students all have a place for their own prom, and we are introduced to Gayla, who is planning to go to the prom with her girlfriend, Katie. She has a less feminine personality and says that she’d be the butch girl in the relationship and is attracted to Katie for Katie. She plans to wear a suit to the prom, while Katie will go in a dress, but for one night only.
Finally, there are the prom naysayers named Oliver and Blake, two friends who believe prom isn’t all that much worth it, although Blake plans to go with a friend rather than his girlfriend because it’s more fun that way. Oliver plans to go to prom with a camera and document the proceedings.
Hali Lee and Peter von Ziegesar have done well with their first film. They have not only focused on something that nearly everyone can relate to, but have also mixed in elements that are not readily seen when it comes to prom. Oh believe me, there’s more to it than the load I just described, such as various prom activities. That Christian School doesn’t even have dancing at its prom since the church over there doesn’t allow it. So they go to a banquet hall for dinner and then are allowed a 2-hour limo ride to anywhere they want in the metro area.
Now, I didn’t latch on to this documentary to “live” an experience that I missed out on. But it’s hard to resist a film that tries to see what makes prom, prom. There’s no definitive answer, but it sure is fun watching Lee try to find out. Not only that, but Lee is also a great narrator and her voice captures exactly what the viewer is going through just as much as she is: Exploring prom from various angles. This is great work.

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