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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Camp

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Letterle
Director: Todd Graff
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 114 Minutes
Release Date: July 2003
Genres: Comedy, Music

*Also starring: Chris Spain, Don Dixon, Sasha Allen, Alana Allen, Egle Petraityte, Steven Cutts, Vince Rimoldi, Stephen DiMenna

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

When I went to Camp Kee-Wah for nine successive summers during the early 1950's, blocking was what we did to help our quarterback and if you said you were gay you meant that had just been given a surprise birthday party. We played basketball four times a week, swam twice a day, and I had a reputation as a slugger on the softball field. How times have changed. Would you believe there are now camps devoted strictly to losing weight and [gulp] to find fulfilment as a dancer or singer? Todd Graff, the writer-director of "Camp," knows this, since his film is based on his own experiences in an actual upstate New York Camp known as Stagedoor Manor. Auditioning a bevy of kids nationwide to perform in the roles of budding actors age 6- 16 (though many seem long in the tooth for that age range), Graff puts on quite a show, one which, unlike its title, is not at all campy but meant to be taken as genuine comedy with quite a few melodramatic flourishes. "Fame" goes to the country in his movie, the screen devoted in part to coming-of-age wisdom, part ode to the glorious musicians of decades ago, especially those of Stephen Sondheim, and all good, clean fun rising at times to some entertainment which is downright thrilling.

Though most if not all of the young performers have had no experience in feature films, many have already carved a few niches in their thespian careers such as Daniel Letterle, who holds the lead role as Vlad a handsome singer-guitarist pursued by the gals because of his all-American good looks and the fact that "straights" are allegedly rare in theater camp.

The story begins on opening day as the kids, mostly veterans of the camp, greet one another with the kinds of hugs you see outside Broadway theaters on opening nights, while Graff separates the theater geeks in the movie audience from the non-geeks right off. When one young woman asks another whether this is her first summer at the place, the other responds, "Don't you remember me? We played together in 'night 'Mother'!" (If you see "Camp" in a movie theater, note which people in the audience laugh loudly to indicate that they're hip. "'night Mother" has only two people in the cast.)

Director Graff moves his summer along by mixing adolescent search-for-identity dialogue with some smashing musical numbers. Though in this case the songs do not move the plot along but are more like the old-fashioned stage shows in which the songs have little to do with the plot, both the teen talk and the stage numbers are thoroughly entertaining. We get to see that while all these theater geeks share a consuming interest in theater, their personal agendas are distinct. Vlad (Daniel Letterle), for example, looks perfect. He's handsome, he attracts people of both sexes, he sings well and play guitar passably. But he's compulsive: when he hears people talk, he automatically transforms their words into numbers. (That's a problem? Give me his looks and youth and I'll gladly take this hang-up off his shoulders.) He's pursued by Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), who considers herself less than beautiful and is upset by the moves put on Vlad by the audacious and trampy Jenna (Tiffany Taylor). The most outwardly troubled youth is Michael (Robin de Jesus), who has the hots for Vlad, confiding to him that his parents are not speaking to him and would not be expected to show up even for the end-season benefit performance. As Bert, who is the principal director of Camp Ovation, Don Dixon turns in an authentic performance as a writer who had one big hit and who, having done nothing for the past few decades has turned into a rummy.

There's much that's predictable about the adolescents. You'd expect to find some who are sexually confused, others frustrated, still others with abusive parents such as the couple who wire their daughter's jaw shut so that she could lose weight but who stuns them and everyone else by transcending that handicap to put on a showstopping conclusion in the group's benefit performance.

Stephen Sondheim, who has a cameo in the film, stayed with the group for three weeks, bunking with them and taking all his meals in their company.

Since I was the drama person at a vocational high school for several years not as a director by as the guy who taught plays and who escorted groups to Broadway and off-Broadway theater on Wednesdays, I can attest to the problem that all of these campers face. I had a difficult time rounding up enough teens to go to these shows, and no wonder. Kids who preferred Broadway to basketball were looked upon as freaks by their classmates. In one unfortunate outburst, even Bert, the principal camp counselor, told the youngsters at Camp Ovation that they were nuts to pursue the theater: that this was not the real world and they were fixing to establish themselves as waiters, not dancers and singers. Maybe these kids are in for a rude awakening, but right now, nothing's wrong with their having a ball each summer, leaving the sports counselor as lonely as the Maytag repairman. "Camp" is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, performed by an enthusiastic and dedicated group of young performers heretofore inexperienced in movie acting and for the old-timers who acted in a support capacity as well.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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