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‘Midnight in Paris’ Review: A Prom Night Doc to Remember

By newadmin / Published on Friday, 23 Oct 2020 22:12 PM / No Comments / 28 views


When a documentary’s opening title card is “Flint, Michigan,” your instinct might be to assume this will be a certain stripe of downbeat, sociological, living history — something already pre-written by the headlines about the place. But Roni Moore and James Blagden’s Midnight in Paris (streaming via Metrograph Virtual Cinemas through October 29th, is not that movie. The people it’s about, Flint Northern High School’s class of 2012, reject that story from the very start. “Everybody always looks at the bad stuff that goes on here,” one of them says early on. “Like our murder rate.” Not the graduation rates; not who’s going to college, had kids, got married. “We only get media when something bad happens.” 

In lieu of images of the “bad” that can happen, here there are humbler things. A young woman eating cotton candy like a queen while her prom date fixes her heels. A pageant wave thrown from within a horse and buggy. A caterer nabbing a bit of food on the fly — and then, realizing they’ve been caught on camera, scurrying away.

That’s right: This is a movie about a senior prom titled “Midnight in Paris.” Moore and Blagden’s documentary winds up being about more than that, for sure. But its success comes, ironically, from its limits: You get the sense that this isn’t the result of two filmmakers dropping into town to tell a specific story, but rather, two filmmakers letting the people and place tell the story on their own terms. The movie hangs back. It goes where its subjects lead it.

And, filmed in 2012 in the five days leading up to the big night, it does go where you’d expect in many ways. Prom is the endpoint; the day to day timeline offers enough of an arc, so the narrative can just get out of the way and let people talk. And talk they do. Midnight In Paris takes us into living rooms and front porches and classroom’s and the principles’ office. It steeps us in the everyday environs of young black people on the cusp of adulthood — a big moment that, in a movie like this, feels deliberately mellow.

It’s almost funny how relaxed the movie is, because the event itself is such a stress fest, or can be. A teacher, who’s also an alum, tells us that it used to take place in the school gym. It’s a different affair now. Prom takes place offsite. Students arrive in flashier rides. Dresses are more extravagant than before. So it’s helpful for the students — who, talking to the directors off-camera, feel like they’re speaking directly to us — tell us about their plans. One young man promises to arrive in a suit. When things really start to pop off, he says, he’s going to put on some boots and grab his “twerk whistle.”

Moore and Blagden build funny contrasts into their delivery of this story. The boys seem certain they’ll be getting laid. (More than a few ambitious students mention condoms.) The young women, meanwhile, are quick to clarify that their dates are not their boyfriends — and these gents won’t be getting any. Sex comes up quite a bit. But more telling is the way Midnight in Paris takes care not to take the logistics of it all for granted, sex being but one such detail. Shopping for dresses, negotiating dates, picking corsages. Deciding on travel — which is to say, deciding how to make an entrance. Benzes, stretch Hummers, party buses? The students tell us how much things cost. $40 for a sickly corsage? “I expected more,” a young woman with palpable swagger says. It isn’t even the right color! 

Sometimes we switch between scenes like these, told from nicer living rooms and saddled with expectations about money, to scenes of other young women trying to find affordable dresses at the prom dress giveaway. Varying between lifestyles like this can be a source of tension, and the finer nuances of class are a quiet fissure running through the length of this movie. But again the directors hang back. The interiors of peoples’ homes each tell their own story already; the contrasts between peoples’ finances sit right at the surface of the movie. The movie doesn’t harp, doesn’t carp, doesn’t in any way slip into reductive territory. 

Moore and Blagden leave something in that many documentaries leave out: We hear their questions from behind the camera, and their reactions within these interactions. The young people of Midnight in Paris are all naturally charismatic, and neither overly impressed by the camera nor embarrassed by it. Hearing the directors volley back and forth with their subjects — to get them to be even more themselves — clarifies the tone of the rest of the movie. One woman ends an interview with, “Any other questions?”, whereas another opens with, “What do you guys want to talk about, like, what colors I’m wearing, or?”

Prom isn’t just prom, however. The movie does not downplay this. Sex, weed, alcohol — no one here, not even the grownups, is naive about what’s going to go down on the night in question. As one woman says, humorously: “I’ve been to prom.” But what about pure accomplishment of making it this far? The adults we meet remind us that if you aren’t a graduating senior, you can’t attend. It’s at their graduation rehearsal, in fact, that students are handed their prom tickets — or notified of the pending debts and failures that might prevent them from prom, or walking across the stage to get their diploma, or both. 

Attendance is a sincere accomplishment, in other words, and one not to be taken for granted. The streets are filled with onlookers when the students arrive at the big event. They pose for the camera, for each other. RIPs and true love hearts penciled onto the students’ desks deepen that story. So do the parents’ reminiscences about raising their kids, their stories about whose kids haven’t lived to make it this far, or who isn’t graduating — the ones who’ve succumbed to circumstance. Parents and grandparents and teachers tell us about their prom nights. They tell us what it takes to raise a kid who gets this far.

The pleasure of Midnight in Paris is the people: smart, funny, eccentric, utterly and entirely themselves. There’s always a subtle tension when people let us into their lives — comparisons always arise, between audience and subject, and among the subjects themselves. But the movie minimizes the damage. In fact, what winds up being notable about the Flint Northern prom of 2012 is that it’s a normal, everyday slice of life. It’s just a prom. 

And, really, being that it’s 2012, this is a blast from the past. The slow jams are, by now, throwbacks: a bit of early Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowlands’s “Motivation.” The prom king and queen sway to Wale’s “That Way.” These songs from the past remind us that there’s an eight year gap between what we’re seeing and our own present. You start to crave a follow-up: Where are they now? What became of cotton candy eater with the broken heel, the girl in the horse and carriage, the student who just lost someone to gun violence? Our past is their future. But to its credit, Midnight In Paris isn’t a film about peering into a crystal ball. It’s a movie about seeing beyond the headlines and looking toward a place and its people. It’s humble as pie — and all the more enriching for it. 

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