AUGUST 28, 2003
'Camp' Makes a Fun, If Shallow, Summer Trip
By Jeremy Mathews

IFC Films
Written and directed by Todd Graff
Produced by Danny DeVito, Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Jonathan Weisgal
Starring Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin de Jesus, Steven Cutts, Vince Rimoldi, Tiffany Taylor, Sasha Allen, Alana Allen, Anna Kendrick, Dixon Stephen Dimenna and Dequina Moore
Rated PG-13
(out of four)

“Camp” is about a collection of kids who are smart, thoughtful and fragile, eager to connect in a world that doesn’t value what they have to contribute. So they suffer through nine months of the year in high school, looking forward to the summer, when they get to meet up with their best friends and put on a series of ambitious plays and musicals at a summer camp for gifted performers.

It’s an interesting setup, and although the story is routine and a bit trite (some have called it a retread of “Fame”), it succeeds through well-done musical numbers.

We first see our ensemble of heroes at the end of the summer in the hell that is high school. One character is beat up for wearing drag to the prom, while a girl laments not having a date. Once Camp Ovation (based on New York’s Stagedoor Manor, where the film was shot) begins, it’s like a joyous reunion.

Michael (Robin de Jesus), who is ridiculed at home for his homosexuality and keeps a photo of Stephen Sondheim by his bed, and Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) have one of the most established friendships, and their relationship is one of the movie’s most convincing and heartwarming dramatic elements.

Vlad (Daniel Letterle) shakes things up in his first year at camp. Of the older age group, Vlad has only recently discovered theater and distinguishes himself with a love for mainstream pop culture and his position as one of the only straight men in camp. He attracts attention from the likes of Ellen, Michael and some of Camp Ovation’s more self-centered stars. Vlad, unable to tell anyone he isn’t interested, makes a hobby of leading people on.

In addition to the kaleidoscope of young-people stories, there’s a subplot involving teacher Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a legendary composer who has sunk into alcoholism and no longer writes songs. His story feeds off of cheap manipulation, but manages to be touching in the musical numbers.

Writer/director Todd Graff clearly knows his way around the backstage musical genre and follows the formula well. The summer is leading up to a big benefit revue that the adolescents’ parents will attend and in which the standard plotlines will be resolved. Prior to that, there are several other productions that allow for episodic set pieces and snazzy song-and-dance numbers.

The young actors create the most satisfying scenes with high energy performances of classic musical numbers. They’re partly comedic, as some of the roles are clearly intended for adults, but they also showcase very talented performers. The kids belt out the songs with precision and dance their way through exhilarating numbers.

The look of the digital photography is the only thing that significantly hinders the musical sequences. Graff shoots them in a traditional, show-offy musical style, which doesn’t blend well with the current quality of digital photography. Although this does look about as good as digital gets, the wavering blacks, off colors and poor resolution stick out like a pile of elephant dung in the lobby of the Ritz.

But Graff succeeds in his mission—to make you forget about all the film’s flaws and enjoy the musical spectacle. Those willing to enjoy such a movie will have a good time—and maybe even feel a little empathy for the confused kids trying to make their way through their lives in which the only people who might understand them are theater types.

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