Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Musical Oddities

Let theater geeks rejoice, because it’s time for summer Camp.


Todd Graff’s musical Camp is based on his experience attending an actual camp in upstate New York for kids with theatrical ambitions — the movie was filmed there on location. Instead of the hard-shelled careerists from Fame, the kids in this movie are social outcasts and weirdos united by their love of Broadway musical theater, and the camp is their mother ship.

The real freak in this place is Vlad (Daniel Letterle), though it’s not because of his name. He’s heterosexual, he has a rock music background, and he stares blankly when Stephen Sondheim’s name comes up. His good looks make him lusted after, and he quickly runs through a number of girls ranging from the diva-like Jill (Alana Allen) to the mousy Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat — kudos to the filmmakers for casting a truly unprepossessing actress rather than a pretty girl with her hair pulled back and glasses on her face). However, he also flirts with the guys, especially Michael (Robin de Jesus), a frizzy-haired Puerto Rican kid still bearing scars from a beating he took for attending his senior prom in drag. Vlad is someone we haven’t seen in the movies before — a straight guy who flirts with gay guys not because he secretly wants to sleep with them, but because he likes the attention. Michael is smitten with him, but the camp’s embittered counselor (Don Dixon) gives him a necessary, if unnecessarily cruel, dose of reality: “Straight boys are straight. You can’t turn one of them just because you need to be loved.” The shifting, complicated relationship between Vlad and Michael is one of the best things about this movie.

Even better is the cast of spirited unknowns and their performances of both Broadway standards and new songs by Stephen Trask, which will delight Hedwig and the Angry Inch fans (Hed-heads, as they’re known in the trade). The singing is strong all around: Sasha Allen renders the gospel-tinged “Through My Tears” in a clean, sturdy voice, while Tiffany Taylor demonstrates nuclear capability in “Here’s Where I Stand.” The tiny Anna Kendrick not only sings a memorably acerbic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” but also uses the song to bully a theatrical audience into a standing ovation.

It’s good that the musical numbers are so rousing, because Camp doesn’t have much of a story. Graff’s visual sense is rudimentary, and his pacing is slow, which works for the early jokes until you realize that the entire film is going to proceed that way. His subplots are by-the-numbers — the counselor rediscovers his joy in teaching, the fat girl shows her parents her inner beauty, Jill gets undermined by an All About Eve-style hanger-on. The cast’s inexperience shows, although the movie turns this to its advantage with the camp’s absurdly ambitious non-musical productions. It’s fun watching these kids butcher Beckett and Albee.

Still, the movie maintains a winning affection for its subjects (and audience members) who can’t resist the call of the stage. At this camp, when Jill doesn’t recognize her co-star from last year’s production of ’night, mother, the filmmaker expects you to be enough of a theater geek to get the joke. That’s refreshing.

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