When a documentary’s opening title card is “Flint, Michigan,” your instinct might be to assume that this will be a certain stripe of downbeat, sociological, living, tragic history — a story already pre-written by the headlines you’ve read 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 gone to college, had kids, gotten married. “We only get media when something bad happens.”
In lieu of images of the “bad” that can happen, here are a few 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-drawn carriage. 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 themed “Midnight in Paris.” Moore and Blagden’s documentary winds up encompassing more than that, for sure, but its success ironically comes from its limits: You get the sense that this isn’t the result of two filmmakers dropping into town to tell an overdetermined, topical 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 Flint Northern’s senior prom, Midnight in Paris goes where you’d expect it to go, in many ways. Prom is the obvious endpoint; the timeline offers a natural arc. So the movie 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 classrooms and the principles’ office. It steeps us in the everyday environs of young black people on the cusp of adulthood — a touchstone shift that, in a movie like this, feels both momentous and deliberately mellow.
It’s almost funny how relaxed the movie is, because prom itself is such a stress fest, or can be. A teacher at the school, who’s also an alum, tells us that the prom used to take place in the school gym. It’s a different, bigger affair now, taking place offsite. Students arrive in flashier rides. Dresses are more extravagant. So it’s helpful for the students — who, talking to the directors off-camera, are as casual as if they were conversing with us directly — tell us about their plans. One young man promises to arrive in a suit, but 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 the material; note the eye rolls from the young women nearby over the mention of that twerk whistle. The boys seem certain they’ll be getting laid. More than a few of them mention condoms. The young women, meanwhile, are quick to clarify that their dates are not their boyfriends — and that they won’t be getting any. Sex comes up quite a bit, unsurprisingly. But more telling is the way Midnight in Paris takes care not to take the logistics of the students’ preparation for granted, sex being but one such detail. Shopping for dresses, negotiating dates, picking corsages. Deciding on travel — which is to say, deciding on 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. Her corsage 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 imply 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.
It’s key that Moore and Blagden leave something in that many documentarians take 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, neither overly impressed by the camera nor embarrassed by it. Hearing the directors volley back and forth with their subjects clarifies what’s been accomplished by the tone of the rest of the movie, explains how open and conversational everyone feels. 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?” They could be talking to nagging older brothers, both.
Prom isn’t just prom, however. The movie does not downplay this. Sex, weed, alcohol — no one here, not even the grownups, plays naive about what’s going to go down on the night in question. As one older 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 students who aren’t actually graduating cannot attend what has been sold to them as the biggest night of their lives to date. 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.
Prom attendance is a sincere accomplishment, in other words, and one not to be taken for granted. RIPs and true love hearts penciled onto the students’ desks, things seen early in the movie, have already deepened that story. And so, when the event finally comes, it’s no surprise to see that the streets outside are filled with onlookers, and not only relatives. Yes, for the pure spectacle of it all. But by this point we’ve heard parents’ reminiscences about raising their kids in Flint, 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 own nights. They tell us what it takes to raise a kid who gets this far — which is to say, the story of what has consumed much of their own lives in the time since their own senior years.
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. The event itself is just a prom.
But of course it feels grander than that. Especially so given that the movie was filmed in 2012 and in so many ways feels like 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.” Songs which, if you know them, 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 Midnight In Paris isn’t a film about peering into a crystal ball. It is instead 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.