REVIEW: Get charming ‘Prom Pact’ off the waitlist
For all its ambitions and previous attempts (some successful, some not) in appealing to audiences, Disney might be onto something truly great with “Prom Pact” (2023). Maybe ambition is the key to a great movie; that’s certainly the case with “Prom Pact,” directed by Anya Adams, which is the story of Mandy Yang (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), an ambitious high school senior whose only goal in life is to get into Harvard. When she gets waitlisted, Mandy becomes determined to do anything she can to get that acceptance letter.
Mandy’s plan involves forming a relationship with Graham Lansing (Blake Draper), the most popular guy in school, to get a letter of recommendation from Graham’s father (Christopher Shyer), a Harvard alum and senator. Mandy begins to tutor Graham as part of her scheme. She and her best friend, Ben Plunkett (Milo Manheim), whom she’s made a “pact” to go to prom with, soon fall in with the popular crowd of their high school as a result of Mandy’s attempts with Graham. With barely any time left before prom and the end of senior year, they realize they’ve missed out on essential parts of the high school experience.
Although predictably cheesy at many points, “Prom Pact” is exceedingly enjoyable. It’s not often that an ambitious, college-driven Asian American girl is depicted as the lead character in a rom-com, particularly when she’s in a position to have a romance with the school’s most popular guy. It’s doubly satisfying to see that drive for college smoothly incorporated into the narrative flow and Mandy’s character development. Lee does an incredible job with her role, and deserves all the acceptances she can get for her comedic abilities and expressions of vulnerability.
The fact that Mandy is so focused on getting into her dream college means that she doesn’t experience all the typical activities associated with what “high school” is. It’s important that the filmmakers acknowledge that, and it’s clear that they do — displaying Mandy’s disgust toward high school romances or partying. That awareness adds to the film’s understanding of its central character.
As part of her story arc, Mandy must realize what she’s missed out on in her single-minded devotion to Harvard. Those who relate to Mandy’s situation witness that need through her tutoring sessions with Graham. Over the course of the story, audiences may find Mandy’s conflict — choosing between sticking to her old dream or chasing a new one — a relevant theme strengthened by Lee’s understanding of the character.
When it comes to the full cast of characters, there’s not much to nitpick. With skills that parallel those of Lee’s, Draper portrays Graham with both innate sensitivity and the charming swagger that reflect why he’s the main love interest.
As Ben, Manheim is adorably and realistically awkward in his interactions with others. When it comes to being Ben’s love interest, popular girl LaToya Reynolds (Monique Green), is positively radiant in her sweetness and her confidence. Despite the script being a bit shaky at certain points, the performances carry the story forward.
What sets “Prom Pact” above all else is how it embraces breaking barriers. It’s more than what character occupies the lead role. “Prom Pact” is relevant because it shows a girl who doesn’t conform to the ruling cultural expectations of a high schooler. Mandy isn’t into anything unrelated to college prep; after all, what use is going to a football game if it doesn’t contribute to her goal of getting into Harvard?
In fact, it’s only through the course of pursuing her own goal, Harvard, that Mandy gets to experience those activities that are key to her growth throughout the film. Through well-placed character quips and banter, the filmmakers take note of Mandy’s differences from the characters of other overdone high school protagonists.
While retaining the charm of older Disney films such as “High School Musical” (2006) and “Camp Rock” (2008), “Prom Pact” elevates itself by depicting a high school experience that is often sidelined. This is the story of an Asian American girl who wants college more than she wants love, but also desires to find a new way of experiencing everything high school has to offer.
If “Prom Pact” is meant to make viewers feel nostalgic about high school, Disney throws even more nostalgia in there for fans of ‘80s rom-coms with an ‘80s prom theme. Littered with various “promposals” that are visually exciting, “Prom Pact” is a high school experience that allows one to live vicariously. Ambition has served its purpose here; “Prom Pact” is in.