"Bandslam" is a pretty good movie given that the odds of it having been a pretty bad movie were steep. On its face, it sounds like the highest-possible fructose corn syrup: Lonely new kid in town, pours his heart out in unanswered letters to David Bowie, becomes manager of teen band fronted by cutest girl on planet. If band wins big Bandslam contest, it's a record deal and fame and so long, high school, it's been good to know ya'.
Here's the surprise: "Bandslam" may come from synthetic materials, but the characters are a little more complicated than usual. The character roster -- a privileged cheerleader, a deadpan emo, a Nerdy McNerdsley and a Meathead McMale Model -- falls into far-less heinous stereotyping than you typically find in this genre. Director Todd Graff, whose earlier "Camp" celebrated teenagers' mixing it up at a performing-arts camp in the summertime, believes in his material (he co-wrote the script with Josh A. Cagan), and he lets the story breathe, wander and explore a little.
"High School Musical" alum Vanessa Hudgens plays the student at a New Jersey high school most likely to be mistaken for TV's animated Daria Morgendorffer. Her class-project partner is the insecure new boy, Will (Gaelan Connell), who has the restless musical curiosity of a budding rock critic and the social skills of, well, a budding rock critic.
Mysteriously, Will is swept into the social orbit of Charlotte (Aly Michalka of the pop duo Aly & AJ), whose three-piece band needs to get to the next level. Will offers his best advice, and suddenly the band known as I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (thank you, Samuel Beckett! Beckett in the house!) becomes a contender, blending ska and reggae and posing a serious challenge to all comers in the tri-state Bandslam competition. Will grows ever closer to the Daria-type character, who calls herself "Sa5m" ("the 5 is silent," she says), but he's irrationally smitten by Charlotte, whose ex starts his own band.
How these navigational challenges work out isn't really the appeal of "Bandslam." The payoffs are in the details. The script believes in its own cliches, while finding conversational and musical detours to enliven them. Each kid has a demon or two to wrestle with. For a film co-produced by Walden Media, specialists in morally uplifting product for the masses, this one feels both morally uplifting and a teensy bit realistic, lived-in -- neither heavily reliant on glib pop-cult references (though this surely is the first Walden screen project to reference "Evil Dead 2") nor so sanitized that we don't believe in the people.
The bonus in this modest charmer? Not a single major female character, including Will's single mother, played by Lisa Kudrow, is subjected to the usual Hollywood rom-com demonization. Why is it a teen-centric movie such as "Bandslam" can manage to treat most of its characters like human beings while junk like "The Ugly Truth" has no interest in such things? It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
MPAA rating: PG for some thematic elements and mild language
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In general release