20 Movies That Capture the All the Drama of Prom

20 Movies That Capture the All the Drama of Prom
Screenshot: Pretty in Pink/Paramount+

We know exactly what we’re in for when the plot of a high school movie reaches prom season. The dramatic crowning of prom royalty. Spontaneous speeches that somehow sound scripted. Synchronised dance numbers. A stirring ‘80s power ballad, even if the movie is set in 2008.

My prom experience was, uh, not that, but I went to high school in a small town that didn’t have a significant dance scene. Maybe your prom was just like in the movies. (I certainly wouldn’t deny that real life school dances are absolutely riddled with high drama.)

There are scattered prom and school dance scenes from throughout film history, but the trope absolutely exploded during the John Hughes-infused 1980s., with peaks and valleys in the years since (1999 must hold some kind of record). So just in time for real-world prom season, let us attend to the very best and most memorable proms and school dances in movie history.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Though it requires a bit of imagination to accept James Stewart, then pushing 40, as a guy just out of high school, it’s a fantasy we’ve been willing to buy into for nearly 80 years. The school dance at Bedford Falls isn’t at the centre of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s a key moment for George and Mary (Donna Reed), cementing their lifelong romance and serving as a last bit of fun before adulthood sends them down darker roads — proms and school dances often representing transitional moments in films, as they do in real life. Filmed at Beverly Hills High School, the pool bit makes for a memorable set-piece; the gym’s still there, and the floor still opens over the pool.

Carrie (1976)

The rare horror movie of its era (or any era, really) to earn multiple Academy Award nominations (for both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie), Brian DePalma’s Carrie is positively loaded with subtext, much of it having to do with the pitfalls of being a teenage girl in a wildly misogynistic culture. Putting aside the fact that Margaret White looks as much like a cross-section of American parenting now as she ever did, there’s a movie prom for the ages at the film’s climax, capturing pretty much everything terrible about being a nerdy, awkward, and powerless teen. Except that Carrie isn’t nearly as powerless as she thinks, and, while it’s possible she takes things a bit far, there’s satisfaction in watching her realise her potential.

Prom Night (1980)

A mash-up of Halloween and Carrie with a pretty sweet disco soundtrack, this one stars Jamie Lee Curtis, solidly in her scream queen phase and joined by tough-but-fair principal Leslie Nielsen. It’s all fairly entertaining, and calls out the laziness of today’s prom kids: If you haven’t practiced a synchronised disco dance number in the middle of a series of slasher murders, are you even really trying?

Footloose (1984)

You might be too cool for prom, but before foregoing the social event of the high school calendar, spare a thought for the poor teens of Bomont, Utah, who just want to dance, you know? Local minister John Lithgow has banned rock music, alcohol, dancing, and drugs — there doesn’t even seem to be any good weed. Luckily, cool kid Kevin Bacon comes into town to teach his fellow youths all about pop country and ‘80s power ballads, culminating in a prom that’s literally illegal. It’s a guilty pleasure more than it is a great movie, but it was inspired by at least a couple of real-life American towns that had in place similar bans well into the Reagan years.

Back to the Future (1985)

Everything in Back to the Future builds to the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, the moment when Marty’s parents will either flame out or give Michael J. Fox his future back (so critical is the moment that the same dance is also at the climax of BTTF 2). It’s not prom, strictly speaking, but it may as well be. In the context of the films, this dance is when fate and destiny collide, and the choices you make literally shape the course of your life. It’s a great metaphor for that late-high school sense that your future is rushing toward you, so you’d better be ready to face it.

Pretty in Pink (1986)

In the pantheon of John Hughes’ beloved, memorable, and problematic ‘80s classics, Pretty in Pink stands out in two ways: it’s the only Hughes movie that involves a prom, and it spotlights Molly Ringwald’s iconic dress, a key fashion moment of the film decade. There’s also that turnabout that feels genuinely surprising — when the original ending didn’t test well with audiences, Hughes chose to resolve the film’s central love triangle between Ringwald, Jon Cryer, and Andre McCarthy entirely differently that in the original script. Whether that was the right choice is still a matter of debate.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)

Prom isn’t central to Romy and Michele, but it’s at the heart of the cult classic’s most memorable scenes. Mira Sorvino’s Romy was stood-up for her prom, but had Lisa Kudrow’s Michele on hand to support, and dance, with her. At their reunion a decade later, things are quite a bit different — but when the billionaire Sandy Drink (Alan Cumming) confesses his love to Michele, she still only agrees to dance with him if Romy can join in. It’s a reminder a bad prom won’t define your life, and also that dance lessons will definitely pay off by the time your reunion rolls around.

The Wood (1999)

Key moments in Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age classic The Wood take place at the first school dance of the year: first, a convenience store robbery and a broken tail light nearly get the boys from the Wood arrested, but Mike (Sean Nelson, before he grows up into Omar Epps) makes inroads with the brother of his crush, Alicia (Malinda Williams), who helps him get a dance and a phone number. Even more memorable, though, are Mike’s awkward and embarrassing efforts to learn how to dance, so that he won’t look like a fool in front of the girl he’s crushing on. He winds up embarrassing himself anyway, which: relatable.

Idle Hands (1999)

A Halloween dance is an entirely appropriate setting for the climax of a fun stoner comedy about a possessed demonic hand. I suppose that there’s also a metaphor in play about handsy high schoolers, but it’s probably best not to give the movie all that much thought.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

I think we have to conclude that the ‘80s have never been topped for the sheer volume of prom-appropriate music, as evidenced by the fact that subsequent decades have continued to deliver us movies with school dance set-pieces involving that era’s distinctive music. Everything in 10 Things is incredibly ‘90s until the big dance at the end, with a Cheap Trick cover setting the scene for satisfying fights, dramatic encounters, big reveals, and some well-earned smooches.

She’s All That (1999)

The charming, if not terribly inventive She’s All That chronicles Freddie Prinze Jr.’s efforts to transform Rachel Leigh Cook from an art student wallflower into a stunning prom queen. That bit we’ve seen before, but the film is a bona fide classic in the venerable “spontaneous choreography” genre — in this case, the entire class dives right in when they hear the opening chords of “The Rockafeller Skank.” (So not all movie proms are set to ‘80s hits; never was a song more ‘90s.)

Love & Basketball (2000)

No stunts nor shenanigans at the Crenshaw High School spring dance in writer Gina Prince-Bythewood’s classic Love & Basketball — no choreography or speeches, but, instead, a key moment between Sanaa Lathan’s Monica and Omar Epps’ Quincy. The two basketball-obsessed athletes and former childhood friends set out on a road to romance when their dates don’t go quite as well as planned.

Mean Girls (2004)

Prom (or, OK, “Spring Fling”) is also, of course, an opportunity to right old wrongs and humble yourself in the most self-aggrandizing way possible (this applies, naturally, to prom royalty only — everyone else please step off the stage). The prom speech is a major feature in movies and TV that I’m not sure has a real-life equivalent. Nonetheless, if you get the chance to clear the air on your way out the proverbial door, take it.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

A fascinating cultural artefact, Napoleon Dynamite was a legit pop sensation for a year or two, and then faded from the memories of all but our society’s elders. The school dance here isn’t climactic, but it does establish the romantic subplot involving Jon Heder’s title character and Tina Majorino’s Deb. The awkward, stilted dancing and proliferation of unnecessarily large sleeves make this, in all likelihood, one of the more realistic school dance scenes in the movies.

Saved! (2004)

An often biting, but not entirely dismissive satire of conservative religion, the climax of Saved! sees Mary (Jena Malone) revealing her pregnancy to the baby’s father (her gay former boyfriend) as the horrified local pastor tries to keep the good Christian kids from going to prom. There’s a literal car crash and a birth, even as the locals decide the a little dancing isn’t the worst thing their kids might get up to.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Demonically possessed Megan Fox and her former best bud Amanda Seyfried never even make it to the school dance, instead having out their issues in a disused pool. Any number of online makeup tutorials and cosplay videos aimed at helping you to recreate Fox’s iconic look testify to the fact that the coolest kids don’t even need to show up.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

We’ve reached the year 2012 and we’re still making tremendous use of ‘80s music. In this case, it’s a dramatic bit got prom drama with “Come On, Eileen” as a centrepiece. At least this one is set in the early ‘90s.

G.B.F. (2013)

In G.B.F.,gay comic book nerd Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willett) discovers his inadvertent outing makes him a novelty, offering new social opportunities that see him leaving his old friends behind. The movie eventually comes down to not only a struggle between Tanner’s new friends and the earlier ones, but also between the homophobic forces at school that attempt to ensure prom remains a strictly hetero event.

Lady Bird (2017)

Proms and school dances can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. They can represent deeply memorable and meaningful moments in life, or embarrassing and dull ones. In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, prom is a moment of realisation for Saoirse Ronan’s title character, pursuing popularity with her Catholic’s school’s rich-kid clique despite her own family’s money struggles. The big night sees her at the crest of that wave, and about to crash, giving her a chance to consider all that she’s abandoned, including her childhood best friend (Beanie Feldstein).

Alex Strangelove (2018)

Any prom scene worth its salt involves romantic turnaround or two, and Alex Strangelove nails its own. After spending much of the film exploring his sexuality and working hard to convince himself he’s straight, Alex comes to the pretty solid conclusion that he is, in fact, quite gay. Still, prom offers a chance for his very understanding ex-girlfriend/date the chance to give him the nudge he needs.

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