'Camp': Kids at a Delightful Stage
Friday, August 8, 2003
"Camp" takes place at the fictional Camp Ovation, an Upstate New York summer retreat for teens who want to be singers, dancers and actors. It's a boot camp for attention whores, an Outward Bound for budding exhibitionists.
First-time director Todd Graff filmed "Camp" at the real-life Stagedoor Manor, a performance camp where he was a counselor as a teenager, and where no less than Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman cut their teeth. A cross between "Fame" and "Waiting for Guffman," "Camp" is just as awkward, earnest, ambitious and occasionally winning as its characters. It bears the rough edges of most first films: clunky staging, gratuitous scenes, an overcrowded story, some weak performances. But "Camp" is spiked with some genuine show-stopping musical numbers, and the sheer pluck of its young cast is nothing if not admirable.
Although "Camp" is an ensemble piece, most of the action centers on a newcomer named Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a hottie who, when he plays the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" at his audition, is welcomed as "an honest-to-God straight boy." Vlad's bunkmate, Michael (Robin De Jesus), a drag queen who was beaten up at his prom for wearing a dress, immediately becomes smitten, but Vlad clearly has an eye for the girls. He takes up with Jill (Alana Allen), the camp diva, but soon his eye wanders toward Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a sweet girl whose wholesome looks belie a belter's way with a song. Lessons are learned, hugs are exchanged, and more than one tear is shed.
Viewers who are patient with "Camp's" myriad, predictable story lines will be amply rewarded in the musical numbers, which one-up each other throughout the film. Just when you think nothing can cap the "Turkey Lurkey" number from "Promises, Promises," along comes Chilcoat roaring "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" to a very bewildered boy about one-third her height. By far the sweetest voice belongs to Sasha Allen, as the kittenish Dee; by far the funniest scene belongs to the wonderful Anna Kendrick, who as a latter-day Eve Harrington turns from a mouse to a megaphone delivering a literally shattering rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch."
"Camp" is capped off by the third-act appearance of the most awe-inducing character since Guffman; a surprise appearance by the Great Man of American Musical Theater gives the film an added frisson. The hard-core fans who will most likely enjoy "Camp's" music and insider humor will no doubt be as thrilled to see him as the kids onscreen are; surely they'll want to take note of these gifted young performers, who will doubtless be taking the boards by storm any day now.