Arts Are Crafted in 'Camp'
Friday, August 8, 2003
IMAGINE "Fame" reinterpreted as an indie film and you have some sense of "Camp," Todd Graff's enjoyable if clunky story about talented summer-camp kids who'd rather be listening to Stephen Sondheim than short-sheeting their bunkmates.
At times the movie hits some wrong notes, as a few of the young performers aren't always in top acting form. But their occasional clumsiness is easily coated over by the movie's overarching goodwill. Graff, the writer-director, was a former camp counselor at the celebrity-studded performing arts camp Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. Clearly he has written this from the heart, and that warmth gets to us. We're never given any reason to feel superior or laugh at the unusual kids that have come to sing, dance and dream of Broadway.
Vlad (Daniel Letterle), the central character, is a fresh-faced kid who walks into Camp Ovation with post-Jimmy Dean swagger. He's good-looking and has a cool air. He's also talented, likes to practice acting routines in front of the mirror, plays a mean acoustic guitar and has a nice voice. And he's sweet-natured. Is he straight or gay? In a camp where virtually every male is gay and makes jokes about queens or Stella Dallas, that's a significant question. The teenage girls and boys, alike, watch with vested anticipation.
Uber-bitchy blonde Jill (Alana Allen) lays the matter to rest, or thinks she does, by inviting Vlad into her humble room and seducing him. But Vlad seems to be available to almost everyone. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a pretty if slightly chubby music snob, falls prey to his charms. And Vlad's extremely gay roommate, Michael (Robin De Jesus), is deeply intrigued by the newcomer's surprisingly friendly overtures.
What is Vlad's deal? That's the main strand of the television-style plot. We also wonder about the jaded Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a visiting director and has-been who spends the first 24 hours of his arrival drinking in front of the camp's main office. And then there's the vicious psychodrama between nasty Jill and her curly-haired roommate, Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), who starts off as Jill's devoted doormat, only to turn into a psychotic back-stabber who seems to have watched "All About Eve" and "Heathers" too many times.
If the story only cares to follow the "Fame" and summer-camp movie cliches, it does so knowingly and open-heartedly. Graff's no Stanley Kubrick, but he knows how to evoke the pure excitement of small-time performance (with the usual hyperbole of professional staging, lighting and back-up music this camp probably couldn't afford). Tiffany Taylor's rendition of "Here's Where I Stand" and that evil Fritzi's performance of "Ladies Who Lunch" are quite rousing and powerful. In "Camp," a movie about the big hopes of young performers, the high points don't get bigger and better than this.