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CAMP (director/writer: Todd Graff; cinematographer: Kip Bogdahn; editor: Myron I. Kerstein; music: Stephen Trask; cast: Daniel Letterle (Vlad), Joanna Chilcoat (Ellen), Robin De Jesus (Michael), Steven Cutts (Shaun), Dequina Moore (Dequina), Kahiry Bess (Petie), Tiffany Taylor (Jenna), Sasha Allen (Dee), Alana Allen (Jill), Anne Kendrick (Fritzi), Don Dixon (Bert Hanley), Stephen DiMenna (Head Counselor, Glenn), Patrick Cubbedge (Patrick), Stephen Sondheim (Himself); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Jonathan Weisgal; IFC Films; 2003)
The mostly solid musical numbers and the right attitude about social awareness issues make this lighthearted comedy bearable.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An energetic musical that imitates Fame in its musical theme, formulaic and predictable storyline, and attempt to be a crowd-pleaser. Director and writer Todd Graff in his directing debut sets the comedy/musical at the fictional Camp Ovation, a summer musical theater experience for school-aged children from 6 to 16 in upstate New York. Graff proves he knows about such theatrical camps by catching the reality of such a camp experience in all the little details and by using many in-jokes. Why Graff knows his material so well becomes easy to understand from his background — he was a former camper and teacher at just such a camp. It was called the Stagedoor Manor and was located in Loch Sheldrake, New York. Graff’s campers included the 8 year old Robert Downey, Jr., Natalie Portman, and Mandy Moore.

Using a cast of unknowns, the low-budget and non-glossy ”Camp” was filmed in just 23 days.

Camp’s strongest asset is in the fresh interracial cast belting out old-fashioned Broadway stage tunes with the greatest of ease. The show tunes ranged from ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (from ”Dreamgirls”) to the movie’s most animated number, ”Turkey Lurkey Time” (from ”Promises, Promises”). The campers are a mix of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, all of whom are musically talented and bitten by the acting bug–though their acting is for the most part stilted. All the boys seem to be gay except for the golden haired engaging guitar-strumming Neil Young wannabe lead named Vlad (Daniel Letterle). The main plot is an old chestnut, as a cynical big-name Broadway director/musical composer named Bert Hanley (Dixon) is hired as a guest instructor and shows up two days late recovering from a drinking binge. He’s a has-been and drowns his sorrows in alcohol, who hasn’t produced a musical play in decades since his only hit show The Children’s Crusade. He insults the self-described freaky kids, even though they lionize him, because he thinks they are out of touch with reality and because they are singing such old fogey adult songs. Still, when given a chance to come to his rescue they willingly bring to life his unrecognized masterpiece. After Bert pukes on Vlad and the kid gets busy cleaning up the mess, he discovers the unpublished musical numbers and surprises the misanthropic composer by using it as the camp’s inspirational traditional end-of-summer benefit show. The campers during the summer put on a fresh show every two weeks, with the ongoing joke being that it leaves no room for the sports counselor to recruit players. In the audience for the final show is a surprise guest, none other than the composer king of Broadway musicals whom the kids worship–Stephen Sondheim.

There are many subplots, but all prove to be either frivolous or too heavy-handed to be worked smoothly into the story. The main subplot involves unpopular at school but singing star at the camp Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), who can’t get a boyfriend because she’s plain looking, slightly overweight, and all the boys she bonds with become like brothers instead of love interests because they are gay. Vlad is the lone straight boy, whose first appearance at the camp stirs up a number of the female campers into openly competing for him. The sexually forward and physically appealing prima donna Jill tries to seduce him, but she turns out to be too bitchy for Vlad’s taste. Ellen’s and Vlad’s innocent summer romance blossoms but has some silly melodramatic moments, and it all leads up to whether this romance will continue after camp. Vlad’s bunk-mate is the drag queen Michael, an Hispanic with bad skin. He was beaten up by his fellow high school students when he tried to go to the junior prom dressed in high heels and a dress. In camp, he’s very popular and has no problem being accepted as a gay. Vlad and Michael have many heart to heart talks, as both characters are analyzed in psychobabble terms. Vlad has many inner tensions to overcome that require him to be on medication, plus he has a compulsion to please others because he craves the limelight and lives for all the attention he gets. Michael has not been accepted by his parents, who are ashamed of his sexual orientation and have neglected him. The youngster craves acceptance and love, and reacts badly when his parents renege on their promise to see him perform. But most of all Michael pines for Vlad, who is a bit of a tease and someone with questionable values and sexual tastes. In a lesser subplot, Fritzi first appears as a frightened teen girl who doesn’t have enough confidence to live her own life. But this changes after Bert gives her a pep talk. The once meek girl miraculously realizes her ambition overnight to get out of the chorus and to sing solo Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as she maliciously schemes to get that part. She even gets into a catfight with her tormentor Jill, someone she once idolized. This theme of hero worship leading to disappointment is repeated, as Vlad becomes disillusioned with his hero the bitter and broken in spirit Bert. It is only the campers’ hero-worship for Sondheim that goes unchallenged. The weakest subplot is over Jenna, whose parents are so concerned with her overweight that they wire-shut her mouth so she can’t eat. Predictably, that comes off for the final show and she shows her parents the talented singer they tried to stop from developing.

The film starts off on the right foot, as the perky campers on the yellow school bus burst into song and passionately sing ”Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”). The film establishes how color blind the camp is and how accepting it is of one’s sexual orientation. I can’t think of too many teen films that were this open and free in these attitudes. Despite the film’s weak script and the amateurish production values, it was still a lively watch. The mostly solid musical numbers and the right attitude about social awareness issues make this lighthearted comedy bearable. Also, it was good to see everyone in the youthful cast gets a chance to display their musical talent.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”