It's a 'Bandslam' Home Run, Folks

Quirky, Smart Teen Movie Channels the Tender Side Of High School Life

Charlotte (Aly Michalka) is a reformed cheerleader with a yen for music and a soft spot for kids, while Omar (Tim Jo) and Bug (Charlie Saxton), right, are along for the ride.
Charlotte (Aly Michalka) is a reformed cheerleader with a yen for music and a soft spot for kids, while Omar (Tim Jo) and Bug (Charlie Saxton), right, are along for the ride. (By Van Redin -- Summit Entertainment)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

What is it about the sensual onstage twirling in "Dirty Dancing"? What is it about Ferris Bueller doing the twist, with all of Chicago at his feet? Somehow your heart (if you have that sort of heart) is pushed to bursting with vicarious triumph, despite the fact that you can't dance and you can't sing and it's unlikely that your own life will ever feature such a scene of utter glory.

That's what "Bandslam" is like -- rife with spirit-lifting scenes of teens singing their hearts out. And it feels just that good, in a quirky-smart way. Not that the movie's trailers would alert you to "Bandslam's" smartness or quirkiness. They're so vague as to suggest only this about the film: There are jokes, there are girls, and there's some music and bands and high-schoolers. It all seems to scream: Please oh please, maybe if you squint, you'll think this is the next "High School Musical"!

Not so, despite the presence of Vanessa Hudgens. And "Bandslam" need not ride on pretense. This is, in its own right, a solid, canny film (much more indie than Disney) from writer-director Todd Graff. As the recent death of John Hughes reminds us of such well-wrought teen movies as "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," we might take consolation in the fact that such films continue to emerge -- "Bandslam" among them. It's an unabashedly sweet, zeitgeist-capturing movie that nerdy teens will be happy to grow up with and parents will be pleased to tag along to.

Our young "Bandslam" hero is one Will Burton (Silver Spring's Gaelan Connell), a high-schooler who's recently moved from Cincinnati to New Jersey with his single mom (Lisa Kudrow). Maybe you've met this sort of boy -- nervy and witty, introverted, unruly hair, thin, a limping sort of shuffle, impeccable taste in music (e.g., the Velvet Underground), ratty V-neck sweaters, heart of gold. Such youths exist, and Will is their endearing, pitch-perfect embodiment.

Each day, Will writes to his idol, David Bowie, who he senses will sympathize with the difficulties of fitting in and getting along. Thrown into the tumult of a new high school, Will finds himself -- after several quick twists of fate -- collaborating on a class project with the bookaholic "Sa5m" (Hudgens); and no, we never learn whence the "5," though we do know it's silent. Meanwhile, bombshell upperclassman Charlotte (Aly Michalka) ropes Will into volunteering at an understaffed day-care program. (We likewise never learn how these students have time to look after kids during the school day.)

A knockout with a killer voice, Charlotte is an ex-cheerleader whose conversion from It Girl to Patron Saint of Children and Indie Kids remains a mystery to her friends. She takes Will under her wing, and he understandably becomes besotted. With his prodigious musical knowledge, Will whips Charlotte's band into shape for the upcoming Bandslam (a big inter-high-school battle of the bands), adding a colorful array of homely cellists and band geeks to the mix.

Meanwhile, Will's romance-tinged friendship with Sa5m progresses with halting awkwardness and tender kinship. In one of the film's best sequences, the two venture into New York City, where they sneak into the basement of the now-defunct punk venue CBGB, where Will spots an old Patti Smith poster and gasps in awe, "Do you know how many times she must have spit on this floor?"

As the film moves toward its inevitable heart-swelling musical conclusion at Bandslam, the plot cycles through its moments of undeniable fuzziness. But the script's earnest intelligence and the actors' charm (Connell, Hudgens and Kudrow are especially fun to watch) make this film an entertaining ode to teenage joie de vivre.

Bandslam (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some thematic elements, mild language and erudition-testing music references.

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