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Disney's 'Prom': The House of Mouse aims for a heartfelt teen story

Updated

Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

There were plenty of doubters when Disney said last year that the new film Prom aspired to follow the tradition of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe.

Studio chairman Rich Ross said he wanted the movie to be “honest and authentic,” an announcement that would make any of the kids from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or any of those daring — and, in hindsight, extremely risque — ’80s teen flicks say, “Yuh, sure.”

Could the home of the ultra-peppy High School Musical franchise tell a heartfelt high school story without an R-rating?

That’s the question faced by director Joe Nussbaum and screenwriter Katie Wech (pictured below in vintage prom finery at the movie’s premiere.) They had certain obvious obstacles: no sex, no drugs, no booze. “The guiding principle was: We’re not saying those things don’t happen. We’re just telling a different part of the story,” says Nussbaum. “They didn’t want it to be the high school you dreamed of going to. They wanted it to be the high school you did go to — or are going to go to.”

No supermodel hot girl takes her top off getting out of a pool. The guys don’t smoke joints in detention. And if there’s sex in some of the relationships, the audience doesn’t get to see it. What’s left for Prom to engage moviegoers?

— Remember that best friend you unfairly ditched repeatedly while constantly pining after the girl-of-your dreams — who’s actually just leading you on (never mind that the friend knew the whole time)?

— Or maybe you’re one of those married-in-high-school longterm couples, the kind who’ve always had each other but are suddenly clueless about what happens when graduation sends you both to faraway colleges.

— Then there’s the goofy guy who just waited too long — all the girls he’d like to ask out have already been asked. He risks ending high school the way he lived the rest of it — alone.

Yeah, it’s easy to roll your eyes over these kind of problems as an adult – nevermind that you probably once cried your eyes out over them.

“High school is a time of so many firsts,” says Wech. “When you’re having these experiences, you really feel like you’re the only person in the world who’s ever been dumped, or fallen in love, or been stood up. Then you see those moments depicted in a story and that recognition feels good. That’s why we still love the movies we saw when we were that age. I hope this can find a place in that genre.”

(For more on some classic ’80s teen flicks, check out John Hughes 101, EW’s exclusive gallery of behind-the-scenes stories revealed in a new University of Southern California class about the late filmmaker.)

Disney’s Prom became a relationship drama, following several couples and desperate singles as they careen awkwardly toward the big night. “On set we called it Prom Actually,” Nussbaum jokes.

The central relationship is between a disrespectful kid regarded by everyone as a delinquent (newcomer Thomas McDonell) and the teachers-pet, student council president (Friday Night Lights’ Aimee Teegarden), who finds herself stuck with him after the principal makes him help the prom committee as punishment.

The misunderstood loner/A+ student romance is a familiar one in movies, but… honestly, a kind of familiar one in real life too. Let’s face it, Nice Guys of the World, there are many girls who prefer boyfriends who are “projects.” “I was the prom-planner, the girl who wanted the whole night to be perfect,” Wech admits. “And for all my overachieving and planning, I also ended up in an unlikely romance with the bad-boy with longhair in real life.”

There are other stories in Prom, too: the girl overshadowed by her football star boyfriend, who isn’t nearly as committed to her as she is to him; the dim, stoner-seeming guy bragging about an unseen “Canadian girlfriend” who probably doesn’t exist; the busybody gossip too preoccupied with other people’s lives to have one of her own.

One thing Wech wishes she had added: “I didn’t feel restricted in anyway, but if I were to do it again, I think I would challenge myself to find a story about a gay character. I regret not landing on the right story to tell,” she says, adding with a hopeful laugh: “Maybe it will have to wait for a sequel.”

It may aim toward a younger audience, but maybe that the happiest thing about Prom is that it doesn’t give every one of its kids a happily-ever-after. “Prom has a lot of happy associations for people, and also a lot of negatives,” Wech says. “Trying to represent both honestly was the key to not becoming overly saccharine or sentimental, or too-young feeling. I always said from the beginning: This is a Disney movie, but it’s not a fairy tale.”

Follow EW film writer Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.