Few events loom larger in the minds of movie teenagers than prom. Dreams are realized, bullies are put in their place, girls are declared “all that.” Real life is rarely as dramatic, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean we should expect studios (and streamers) to stop trying to make the next “Pretty in Pink” or “10 Things I Hate About You” anytime soon. Disney offer a fresh take on teendom’s big night with “Prom Pact,” in which two platonic best friends who are more comfortable on the outside looking in decide to finally step into the fray of high school life.
Mandy Yang (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) first appears in a Ruth Bader Ginsburg T-shirt, obsessively refreshing her Harvard application in the hopes that it’s gone from “pending” to “accepted” while trying to avoid the pep rally where North Seattle High will officially announce its prom theme: the ‘80s. “Real life starts once we get out of here and go to college,” she says to bestie Ben Plunkett (Milo Manheim), who’s slightly more enthused about the prospect of having a traditional high-school experience than she is. She asks him to prom as a gesture of goodwill despite the fact that “the only thing I hate more than slow dancing is the gender wage gap,” setting the stage for what so far feels like yet another familiar teen movie.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; this formula is tried and true for a reason. Among the predictable bits here, a deception comes back to haunt the protagonist in the third act, which in this case entails Mandy trying to become friends with the most popular kid in school (Blake Draper) because his dad is a Harvard alum and her entire life trajectory is predicated upon being accepted. Directed by Anya Adams (a veteran of such TV series as “Black-ish,” “Glow” and “Yellowjackets”) and written by Anthony Lombardo (“Modern Family”), what follows is sweeter and more clever than the majority of its peers.
It has its own lingo, as so many of its predecessors do — “Everests” are the fellow students Mandy and Ben look down on because they’re peaking in high school — as well as familiar adult faces in snarky supporting roles. Here it’s Margaret Cho as Mandy’s guidance counselor and Wendi McLendon-Covey as her mother, with Cho in particular acquitting herself well as a reliable confidante. More than anything else, though, the film owes its success to Lee.
The star makes Mandy more than just the slogans on her T-shirts (“less plastic, more ocean”) and turns her into a three-dimensional being with far more depth than we’ve come to expect from such characters. She rolls her eyes at the increasingly elaborate “promposals” her classmates contrive and values her friendship with Ben more than whatever joys prom could offer, but the softer side that inevitably emerges feels as bighearted and authentic as they come.
That “Prom Pact” is bypassing theaters for a March 30 premiere on the Disney Channel before arriving on Disney+ the following day makes it unlikely to receive a wide audience, which is a shame. The film is an exemplar of its genre, one that honors its forebears while also acknowledging and attempting to correct their more glaring faults. (An early scene in which the problematic aspects of “The Breakfast Club” and “Weird Science” are pointed out reads as affectionate rather than scolding.) “Prom Pact” may not be the valedictorian of teen movies, but it’s certainly in the top 10% of its graduating class.