Prom Dates review – grating high school comedy is a low-rent disaster (2024)

There are good reasons why many American teens stress about prom: it’s expensive, heightened, fraught with status and identity; the photos will haunt you forever; it’s a coming-of-age milestone freighted with significance, thanks in part to countless films and TV shows in which teens stress about prom. To that canon there is now a new throwaway entry: Hulu’s Prom Dates, a cringeworthy comedy produced by Kevin Hart, which posits that in the year 2024, two seemingly self-possessed girls sincerely believe that having a prom date – any prom date, but especially a cool one – is the single most important thing in the world. That it’s the one reason to stay in a cartoonishly terrible relationship, or go on a fishing expedition in search of passable strangers to drag back for one night in high school.

This is just one of the many grating elements in Prom Dates, directed by Kim O Nguyen from a script by DJ Mausner. Others include, in no particular order: overuse of jokes, however well-meaning and couched in a razor-thin plot of acceptance, predicated on stereotypes of lesbians in lieu of cleverness; extremely off-putting, self-obsessed characters; overweening performances; gratuitous projectiles of vomit and/or blood as desperate bids for laughs; an overly hammy character named Greg (Kenny Ridwan) that queasily milks the stereotype of the emasculated, nerdy Asian male. (All of these issues recall the woefully ill-conceived HBO series Generation, a one-star review that haunts me, which is maybe part of the problem.)

The central issue, though, is that tunnel-vision on prom, which makes sense for some 13-year-olds, as Hannah (Julia Lester) and Jess (Antonia Gentry) are when they sneak under a table at the older kids’ dance and form a blood pact that they will help each other have the perfect future prom. That is the first scene of the movie – the nerdier Hannah’s blood oath goes horribly awry, of course – and still 90% of Jess’s character several years later. (The other 10% is liking Hannah’s brother (JT Neal), who looks and acts like a management consultant and to whom she secretly lost her virginity.) As a senior, Jess remains obsessed with becoming prom queen – so much so that she has spent some of her college fund on a custom prom gown and is dating Luca (Jordan Buhat), a sinister hunk rippling with rank one-note contempt. (He makes fun of Hannah’s size to both of their faces, for one.)

Hannah, meanwhile, is stuck in a sexless relationship that makes her skin crawl with the overly devoted, creepily romantic Greg (truly, poor Greg) because she is too afraid to come out as gay, for reasons thankfully beyond prom. But when Greg’s devotion spooks Hannah into literally running away, and Jess catches Luca cheating on her, the two are left dateless on prom eve. And because of the blood pact and the fact that Jess got a Brazilian, they go on a college party bender at Rutgers to find Hannah the lesbian date of her dreams and to find Jess literally anyone. At least they name a specific place; the film is otherwise the now-expected streaming service dump of overlit and hazy, lacking both a sense of place or of real teenagers.

Prom Dates takes clear inspiration from Netflix’s far superior Sex Education, talking frankly about being inside someone, fingering and prom night expectations. But whereas Sex Education grounded its heightened scenarios and zaniness (an alien sex musical, a teen sex therapist) in real teenage conundrums, curiosity and lust, Prom Dates finds only “I wasted 10 months of my life giving handjobs to a guy with a Glee bumper sticker” and the principal (John Michael Higgins) putting a condom on his head. Imagine Booksmart, including a drug trip and first encounter with a woman over one raucous night, without any of the charm or texture and with a side plot about an Italian guy looking for a human sacrifice at a college party. Jess goes for him anyway, because prom!

What sweetness and charm Prom Dates does muster is thanks to Lester alone, whose comic timing is sharp and whose performance of a girl growing comfortable in her sexuality over one crazy night actually conjures the sense of a real person. It’s a relief when Hannah ditches Jess’s inveterate prom scheming and stumbles out on her own. A standout from the underappreciated High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Lester brings heart and actual humor to what often feels like a cut-and-paste job of basic tropes with attempts of absurdism sutured on, such as a painfully unfunny turn by Chelsea Handler as Greg’s mom, who teaches her beloved dog to communicate by pressing labeled buttons.

Prom Dates is checkered with such stretches – a suspected lesbian on the softball team is so big she can’t fit in a car, for one literal tall tale – which exemplify this movie’s overall feeling of strain. Straining for prom, straining for laughs, straining to make something edgy or progressive. Straining the notions of comedy, and certainly one’s precious time.

  • Prom Dates is now available on Hulu in the US with a UK date to be announced

Prom Dates review – grating high school comedy is a low-rent disaster (2024)


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