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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Happy Campers
by Donald Levit

Camp is the sort of uptempo, obvious showcase for young talent that propelled Fame to film and TV prosperity. Two of Camp’s songs were, in fact, specially written for the occasion by that 1980 film’s Oscar-winning team of Michael Gore and Lynne Ahrens. Stephen Sondheim, as well, and Henry Krieger, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and the Rolling Stones donated rights to other songs, specifically selected to jibe with story and character. To carry the similarity further, though fledgling professionals, the young actors-singers-dancers-musicians are first-timers in that none had appeared before in a feature or on TV.

Directing his initial film, screenwriter and actor Todd Graff turns to his own script, written on spec five years ago but unfilmed while he sought backing to direct it himself. He wanted to give the movie a more honest non-glossy, non-studio feel. He based the story on personal experience as both camper and teacher at Stagedoor Manor, an upstate New York performance-training-center/summer-camp, which graciously allowed twenty-three days of on-location shooting after the 2002 season.

Set in the ready-made enclosed campus of fictional Camp Ovation and against the background of long, hard practice for hopeful performers aged six to sixteen, the story sets off the work and sacrifice of these young people against their often unhappy lives outside this artificial world of entertainment. In many cases trailing normal adolescent baggage of acne, uncertain self-esteem, peer pressure and awakening libido, these youngsters also frequently carry the added burdens of their own exaggerated theatrical personalities as well as a high incidence of sexual identity crises, competitiveness, fear of failure and the restrictive tyranny of stage mothers and fathers.

As the previous summer’s returnees greet and embrace one another, excitedly exchanging tales of winter success and failure, in walks newcomer and stage neophyte Vlad Baumann (Daniel Letterle). Sports counselor Buddy finds absolutely no takers, but Vlad is slimly muscular and athletic, blonde and smiling, charming and just confident enough, and everyone immediately falls for him. "An honest-to-God straight boy!" whom the girls openly pursue.

This apparently all-American addition singles out one of his roommates, desperately unhappy drag queen Mike Flores (Robin de Jesus), and plain-Jane Ellen Lucas (Joanna Chilcoat) as special pals, and, despite jealousies and various foreseeable snags, things seem to be going well as they all rehearse for biweekly shows and a traditional end-of-summer benefit extravaganza. Adults have their problems, too, so Vlad undertakes to resurrect the confidence and career of cynical counselor Bert Handley (Don Dixon), who drinks to forget a failure to repeat his musical success of years earlier, The Children’s Crusade.

But the boy is human, no more than a teenager, at that, and he, too, will overreach, make mistakes and reveal clay feet and a normal quota of self-doubts. No one is irreparably hurt, not a few egos and relationships are repaired, and there is even a godlike cameo by Sondheim to give an adult boost. With some impressive (pre-recorded) voice and dance numbers, the summer must end – as camp experiences habitually do – with embraces, hopes and promises for the coming winter and following summer.

In the first minutes, the young actors’ lack of experience shows, and scenes are stilted, but this initial awkwardness soon fades. Indeed, such progression is actually an enhancement, perhaps deliberate, for new relationships in new surroundings are usually tentative as people test the waters and seek to establish themselves. While the resolution is predictable and easy, this does not detract from the pleasurable feelings generated here in Camp.

Writers of stories, novels and films often choose an isolated microcosm, e.g., ships or islands, to mirror problems and passions of the macrocosm world. Less truly isolated and more good-natured, life in Camp Ovation does, nonetheless, hint at important issues. Its protagonists’ difficulties are pretty much settled, and pretty easily, too. Unfortunately, today’s celebrity media would indicate that, in the for-keeps game of life, many a child star winds up a sad, sorry adult. Enjoy Camp, by all means. But later, think ten or a dozen years down the line and remember the film’s dressing-room bottle that warns, "Keep Out of Reach of Children."

(Released by IFC Films and rated "PG-13" for mature thematic elements regarding teen sexual issues, and some language.) 

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