Review by Dustin Putman
3 stars out of 4
A summer camp for teenage misfits. First loves. Sexual identity issues.
Coming-of-age experiences. And a gruff counselor/ex-Broadway writer
who needs only his singing-and-acting-obsessed students to wash his
cynicism away. Written and directed by Todd Graff, "Camp" probably
didn't seem like anything that special on papersimply a series of
stock characters and cliche-ridden subplots. The film is a testimony,
then, of how a marginal screenplay can be miraculously transformed
into something fresh and intimate through filmed images, naturalistic
performances, and magical music numbers. That's right, "Camp" is not
only a coming-of-age dramedy and a camp farce, but also a zippy musical
that often reminds of a cross between 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry
Inch" and 2002's "Chicago." It may not match either of those two one-of-a-kind
entertainments (some of its storylines really are rather commonplace),
but with energy to spare, it's not for a lack of trying.
The time is now. The place is the woodsy, secluded Camp Ovation. And
for an eclectic group of teenage drama freaks, this Broadway-themed
summer camp is what they live for throughout the other 9 months of
the year. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is so insecure outside of performing,
she tried to pay her brother to take her to the prom, while buddy
Michael (Robin de Jesus) was the victim of a gay bashing incident
when he cross-dressed for the dance. His parents don't even have it
in them to come see him in one of his plays. Ellen and Michael's worldsand
several of the other kids', for that matterare turned upside down
with the appearance of "an honest-to-goodness straight guy," the angelic,
eager-to-please Vlad (Daniel Letterle). Everyone, it seems, has a
crush on Vlad and, in return, Vlad is happy to fulfill their wishes
if it means getting attention and being liked by all.
Meanwhile, snooty sexpot Jill (Alana Allen) is more than happy to
have roommate Fritzi (Anne Kendrick) act as her personal slaveuntil
the luster fades and she drops her like yesterday's news. In return,
Fritzi plots revenge on Jill, intent on sabotaging her next moment
in the spotlight of a stage. Others filling the rest of the central
roles include the overweight Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose look-obsessed
father has wired her mouth shut in an attempt to get her to lose weight;
longtime camper Dee (Sasha Allen), whose voice has the strength and
range of a pro but who secretly yearns to have someone of the opposite
sex interested in her; and counselor Bert (Don Dixon), who has all
but given up on his flailing Broadway career until his students teach
him to never stop reaching for his goals.
With not a single cast member a veteran film actor, but with each
of them immensely talented as performers, there is an unaffected truthfulness
to each of the characters that make them seem real, as opposed to
scripted. Because we have never seen them before, and because they
are so believable in what they do, we accept them in their roles.
Above all, "Camp" excels in its performances, good enough to transcend
its predictable plotting and, in some instances, overwrought dramatics.
One such moment comes in the finale, when Jenna stands up before her
materialistic parents and, through the beautiful song "Here's Where
I Stand" and vocals by actress Tif fany Taylor, tells them to accept
her for who she is. The reaction shots of Jenna's father go overboard,
exaggerating an emotion that could have been more subtly handled,
but they cannot take away from the sheer beauty of the sequence.
Truth be told, there isn't a weak performance in the group of leads.
Daniel Letterle has the handsome, boy-next-door looks needed, but
he also has an unforeseen depth to him as Vlad, the most original
character in the piece. Vlad may be straight, but that does not mean
he is exempt from doing whatever is needed to be accepted and loved
by everyone. Through his often misleading actions, Vlad remains likable,
because Letterle plays him as someone who isn't purposefully malicious.
Joanna Chilcoat and Robin de Jesus fulfill the two remaining roles
of a potential love triangle that may or may not ever happen. Chilcoat
effectively brings out Ellen's inexperienced nature while refusing
to make her seem naive, while de Jesus touchingly portrays Micha el
as a young man who isn't confused with his sexuality, but is confused
by how it has changed some of the relationships in his life that matter the most.
Special notice also must go to the exuberant Sasha Allen, as Dee,
who has a wise and worldly quality to her face not easily forgotten.
It helps that as strong as all of the young actors' voices are, Sasha
Allen's is the most amazing. Her opening number, "How Shall I See
You Through My Tears," gives the film a weighty push right from the start.
The best scene in "Camp," set to the characters' rendition of the
gorgeous song, "Century Plant," symbolizes what the movie is first
and foremost about, and how it is about. When Vlad discovers an unproduced
musical piece by Bert, he and the rest of the company gather around
to perform it together, something they refuse to stop doing even when
Bert finds out what they are doing. As they continue to sing, joyful
in getting to do what they love, Bert finally heeds the lyrics of
hi s own song, that "it's never too late to play the game." It is
one of the most powerful cinematic moments this year.
From a subjective point of view, "Camp" is by-the-numbers and unsurprising,
and its characters are types seen countless times in other films.
Through the magic of song, however, the viewer learns more about the
people than could ever been explained in spoken words. The result
is something a good deal more remarkable than it otherwise might have
been without the music. A motion picture ideal for teenage and twentysomething
audiences tired of the same old mainstream things, "Camp" is well-intentioned,
full of amiable energy, and exceedingly entertaining with each passing minute.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman