Courtesy of Netflix

A few months ago, the release of the Netflix original film “The Prom” took the creativity-starved theater world by storm, and in the aftermath, a new project was born. 

The Unruly Hearts Initiative, started by “The Prom,” stars Jo Ellen Pellman, University of Michigan alum, and Ariana DeBose, an ensemble member of the Original Broadway Cast of “Hamilton” and Tony Award nominee. Its goal is to connect LGBTQ+ youths to charities and organizations that provide help. 

“The Prom” itself was somewhat controversial: James Corden (“Cats”), who plays Barry Glickman, has been condemned for portraying an offensive stereotype of a gay man. This article is not excusing that casting or portrayal, nor does it aim to review the movie. Whatever altercations the film has started, it was highly anticipated and popular when it was released. Some performers in the film took the true meaning of the story to heart and used that platform to their advantage. In an interview with Playbill magazine, DeBose said, “Helping young people find resources in the face of adversity and directing families towards tools for acceptance and understanding is something I’m extremely passionate about.”

The three main goals of the Unruly Hearts Initiative are housing insecurity solutions, education access and mental health services and mentorship. For example, Covenant House provides shelter, food and crisis care for young people; The Trevor Project is a suicide prevention and crisis intervention center for young LGBTQ+ people; Point Foundation offers mentorship and financial aid to LGBTQ+ students.

“I spent much of my youth unaware that these organizations even existed, and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to create the Unruly Hearts Initiative: to connect people to valuable resources at the time when they might need them the most,” Pellman said in the same Playbill interview.

Pellman, who identifies as queer like her character in “The Prom,” found this role to be empowering for her and, she hopes, for others. The first newsletter for the Unruly Hearts Initiative advertised their charity auction; some of the bidding items were Zoom meetings with various Broadway and film stars, learning choreography from “The Prom” stars, a trip to Los Angeles, signed posters and more. It also notified subscribers of the upcoming Point Foundation Scholarship deadline.

“It’s the best feeling in the world, knowing I can bring my authentic self to the role,” Pellman said. “And not just be accepted, but celebrated.” 

While it is debatable how well the film celebrated LGBTQ+ actors, Pellman certainly took full advantage of her role. Seeing a recent U-M alum engage in such important work is inspiring to young creators everywhere. Despite Pellman only having graduated a few years ago, she is making strides in and for the theatre industry. Not only is Pellman positively representing LGBTQ+ teens, but she and DeBose are also using their blockbuster platform to provide tangible help for the people they are representing. Pellman has said that she grew up in a relatively supportive environment, and it is exciting to see a rising star like her offering that type of support to other youths.

In an interview with The New York Times, Pellman said she hoped that the film would be a beacon of light for those who identified with Emma, saying, “I hope they’re like, ‘I’m worthy of a happy ending.’” 

If actors like Pellman continue to utilize the spotlight, I’m hopeful that this will become an even more common sentiment.

Daily Arts Columnist Dana Pierangeli can be reached at