Judge Jesse Ataide never went to the prom, and he didn't want to be reminded of it.
A documentary about God, Sex + Taffeta
I never went to a prom myself. It wasn't because childhood memories of Carrie had traumatized me, and I can't claim that I was a bitter cynic who had retreated to an ivory tower to watch the shallow excitement of my peers with a sense of amused detachment and scorn. It was simply that my high school didn't have proms. We had banquets, a more muted and regulated variation of a prom, distinctly lacking loud music and anything that could possibly be construed as dancing. As it turns out, this unique private school phenomenon is documented in Prom Night in Kansas City as one of the several prom events to be scrutinized for its underlying meaning and purpose.
The basic idea is to look at the prom experience from several different angles and try to make some kind of sense of this revered ritual of American teenage culture that has emerged since the 1950s. Is prom merely a democratized version of the debutante ball? Is it a subconscious rite of passage? A "junior wedding day"? An outlet for awkward adolescent romance? Or is it merely an excuse for high school seniors to dress up, dance dirty, drink a little, and maybe, if one gets lucky, get laid?
To get a full view of the prom rituals, various different types of schools and student bodies found in Kansas City are represented. The inner city, upscale suburbia, a religious sect, and the gay and lesbian communities are all present and accounted for, with students representative of each school and different social and economic backgrounds giving their opinions, ideas, projections, and even their dreams of what their big night is going to entail. It quickly becomes apparent that expectations for prom are as varied as the events themselves. "Smurf" and Janis, the two students being followed at the urban school, see the possibility of being Prom King and Queen as some kind of pinnacle of the high school experience, a validation of their self-worth and of their relationships with their peers. Beth and Mary, who attend a strict Mormon high school, explain how they enjoy the "different kind of fun" they have at their dance-less banquets, because it allows them to celebrate friendship. Gayla and Katie, who attend the local GLBTQ (Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans/Questioning) prom, merely want a place where they can wear what they want and not have to hide their sexual preferences from critical peers. And then there is Oliver, the token cynic, who provides the most intelligent commentary in the whole film by attending his prom in a thrift shop suit with his video camera serving as his date (he provides the only footage of his prom—his suburban school would not allow filmmakers to attend the dance).
There's some superficial examination of this "all-American" event, with some opening voiceover comments playing over vintage commercials of prom-inspired Barbie board games and wholesome images of mothers and daughters from the 1950s getting ready for the big night. But when it comes down to it, it is mostly the students, with their respective giddiness or scorn, who drive the film's flimsy exploration.
And that is both the strength and the weakness of Prom Night in Kansas City. While many of the individual stories and events are compelling enough on their own, they lack any kind of overall analysis to give the subject any kind of context or meaningful insight. There are so many diverse factors involved with proms—capitalism to hormones, Hollywood-inspired expectations to familial pressures—that are just barely touched upon, if mentioned at all. Also absent is any kind of depiction, let alone analysis, of the freak dancing, drinking, and/or sex that defines many students' prom experience. This further underlines the disappointing shallowness that plagues Prom Night in Kansas City and prevents it from ever evolving into any kind of substantial examination of the subject at hand.
For a documentary digitally shot and containing some amateur footage, both the image and audio track are about as good as could be expected, and optional English subtitles are provided for the hearing impaired. The sole extra (besides the single preview of another similarly themed documentary) is a lengthy interview with the two directors, which give some background on the origins of the film, some follow-up on several of the subjects, and some general discussion on the mechanics of the film.
Ultimately, Prom Night in Kansas City takes on a subject that is too broad and complex to convey in a single 54-minute documentary. But at the same time, I cannot deny that what does end up being covered is nothing less than compellingly watchable.
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