In 1980, Alan Parker made a film about talented but troubled youngsters attending New York's High School for the Performing Arts. Fame wasn't quite as good as it has always been remembered, but its optimistic youthful energy made it a crowd-pleaser. A quarter-century later, screenwriter and debut director Todd Graff seems determined to resurrect Fame's fortune in a musical romance called Camp. Toe-tapping production numbers and abundant vocal talent provide Camp with an undeniable appeal, but clumsy casting, silly plotting and cloying sentimentality will deny the current film the affection of the one it has hoped to clone.
At Camp Ovation, youngsters rehearse by day and eventually perform a new Broadway-style show every two weeks. By night they give free rein to enough teenage hormones to keep skin care products in profit through the next millennium. The players are a Rainbow Coalition of bursting genius and crippling neuroses. Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a white guitar player with the athletic good looks of a teen Mark Harmon. He's a heterosexual hunk with a surprisingly sweet voice and a worrisome urgency to please. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a pretty but faintly chunky white girl who is so unpopular at her high school that she has to bribe her brother to escort her to her junior prom. Michael (Robin De Jesus) is a pimply Latino who tries to attend his prom in a dress and high heels and gets stomped by football players for his trouble. Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) is a chubby black girl whose parents have wired her jaws shut to force her to lose weight. Dee (Sasha Allen) is a black girl who seems to attract the attentions only of gay boys. Jill (Alana Allen) is a white femme fatale, a teenage sexual predator who likes to seduce and devour her prey. And Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) is a white girl in mysterious thrall to Jill. Bert (Don Dixon) is their bitter alcoholic teacher, a former smash songwriter who hasn't had a hit in ages.
The fundamental narrative elements in Camp prove about as plausible as the proclamations of Iraq's minister of information. If Ellen is as sweet as she's portrayed here, it makes no sense that she's unpopular at her high school. The film's efforts to suggest she's an utter outcast because she likes show music and opera rather than rock and rap are just laughable. The script tries to take the shine off stud god Vlad by revealing him as suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Elsewhere, ever so slightly, the film wonders about his sexual security. Does he get it on with all the girls because he worries that he might be gay? This Freud-lite stuff is nowhere intriguing and everywhere annoying. Michael's sudden ability to walk the heterosexual walk, and Dee's completely unexplained readiness to become his partner, push the film into the realm of scoffing.
And then there's Jill and Fritzi. The farcical nature of their entire relationship seems to belong to another kind of movie altogether. We haven't a clue why Fritzi wants to humble herself to Jill, who provides Fritzi not a thing in return. And though Alana Allen, who plays Jill, manages the haughty smirk of the teen ice bitch, she lacks the physique to carry off the whole persona. Then there's Jenna's awkwardly wrought story. Her parents have sent her to a musical theater performance camp. Her talent is singing. But she can't even open her mouth. This might work were it developed into a good joke. But it isn't.
In sum, if it's story and character that entices you out to the movies, you should pick something other than Camp. On the other hand, if you're a fan of Star Search or American Idol, then Camp might be just your cup of tea. Because here's what works in this flick: The acting might be iffy, the plot about the teacher redeemed by the faith of his students might make you want to hurl your soda against the screen, but the kids in this cast can flat-out bring it once they open their mouths to sing. Vlad, who shows his musical chops the earliest, is ultimately the least enduring. He reminds you of Ricky Nelson on the eve of the Beatles. Michael can sing, too. It's a little difficult to imagine him a star, but not at all hard to see him as surviving in the musical industry.
And then there are the young women. Ellen is very good, as is Dee. All the more because we're suppose to hate her, Jill is better still. Then Fritzi gets her chance, and she's like a young Patti LuPone. And to cap off the whole event, Jenna, whose one-note character is sadly incomplete, steps forward and suggests the electric power of Aretha Franklin herself. In short, because of the impressive vocal talents of its young cast, Camp succeeds without ever working.
- One time, at musical camp ...: Vlad (Daniel Letterle) and Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) bond over Broadway in Todd Graff's Camp.