"Camp" wears its heart on its sleeve and every other available surface. A fresh-air "Fame" about a summer camp for talented teenagers who are hooked on musical theater, it plugs into the energy, skill and unapologetic joy of its young performers and doesn't look back.
As written and directed by Todd Graff, "Camp" has a good deal of the appeal, and the drawbacks, of a high school play. It can be pokey and overly earnest and its dramatics are not always polished, but, on the other hand, would you want them to be?
The attraction here is not gloss and refinement but the inescapable charm and cheerful ability of a hard-to-resist cast. These are teenagers who are passionate about performing songs from "Follies" and "Company," who just want to entertain us, to hear the sound of our honest applause. This is Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show, more or less for real.
One reason Graff and his film are so much on the side of these kids is that he was one himself, a veteran of Stagedoor Manor, a performing arts camp in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., that had everyone from Robert Downey Jr. to Mary Stuart Masterson as campers. Speaking at the film's Sundance premiere, Graff was still blown away by his memory of Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as Laura in "Glass Menagerie." At age 12.
That makes Graff intimately familiar with the central dynamic of the film's fictional Camp Ovation. This is a place where erstwhile outcasts who are ignored or outright shunned in their high schools can relax and be accepted as themselves, where everyone gets it when you say "that's so 'Stella Dallas' " and Stephen Sondheim is worshipped the way Michael Jordan is everywhere else.
"Camp's" three central figures are introduced trying to simply survive during the regular year. Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is glimpsed reciting a Dirk Diggler soliloquy from "Boogie Nights," unpopular Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is shown bribing her older brother to take her to the junior prom and Michael (Robin De Jesus) is presented trying to attend his prom in full high-heels-and-fishnet-stockings drag. It doesn't work out well.
At camp, however, they are among friends, and no one is more appreciated than Vlad, who is a Camp Ovation rarity, "an honest-to-God straight boy." Naturally the film has him share a room with Michael, who thinks experimenting with heterosexuality means going out with straight guys.
While who is dating whom is a major "Camp" focus (this is a teenage group, after all), the film has several other subplots. There is the plight of Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), who arrives with her jaw wired shut because her father insists she lose weight, and the sad story of staffer Bert Hanley (musician Don Dixon), a once-successful composer now a bitter, reclusive alcoholic.
Most amusing is the complex relationship between glamorous Jill (Alana Allen), a catty, conniving "Whatever Lola Wants" blond, and the mousy brunet Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), whose lapdog bond with Jill takes a distinctly "All About Eve" turn.
Obviously, there is a healthy dose of soap opera in "Camp's" plotting, but the film is nothing if not aware of what it's doing. It knows it's riffing on cliches and it counts on us to be willing to be in on the joke.
Similarly, although Graff as an experienced screenwriter ("Used People," "Dangerous Minds," "Angie") is good at creating characters, he's not as sure-handed as a first-time director, leading to actions that can seem unmotivated or frankly baffling.
But, once again, "Camp" counts on the talent of its youthful cast to convince us to cut it some slack, and we do. The kids, expertly cast by Bernie Telsey and Victoria Pettibone from nontraditional sources, are not only enthusiastic, they can really perform. When they belt out (there really is no other word) songs like "How Shall I See You Through My Tears" and "Here's Where I Stand," an inescapable sureness comes off the screen. The singers know why they're there, we know why we're watching, and, for a moment at least, everything is right with the world.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements regarding teen sexual issues, and for some language
Times guidelines: A lot of frank language and some sexual situations
Robin De Jesus...Michael
Released by IFC Films. Director Todd Graff. Producers Todd Graff, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Jonathan Weisgal. Executive producers John Wells, Richard Klubeck, Holly Becker, Caroline Kaplan, Jonathan Sehring. Screenplay Todd Graff. Cinematographer Kip Bogdahn. Editor Myron Kerstein. Costumes Dawn Weisberg. Music Stephen Trask. Production design Dina Goldman. Set decorator Tora Peterson. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
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