Dir: Todd Graff. US. 2002. 115mins.
Of all the films in dramatic competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival, none was as full of undiluted pleasures as Todd Graff's directorial debut Camp. A deliriously good-natured romp through the lives of a bunch of precocious kids attending a summer camp for actors, Camp is also a cracking musical and a sweet paean to being an outsider in life and the insecurity of growing up 'creative.' While the film is little more than a snapshot of the summer and is short on dramatic coherence, it has the rapier-sharp wit and genuine charm to score a major specialised hit in North America and overseas. Its unique subject and amusing observations on the world of theatre and performance will win many fans among upscale audiences and cause many a knowing smirk among those with personal experience of the performing arts.
A surefire cult item, then, but Camp is also sweetly free of expletives, violence or overt sexuality and, with PG ratings around the world, could become a popular movie with teenage audiences who themselves lean towards self-expression through theatre and song, as well as to those who don't fit in or those unsure of their sexuality. With careful nurturing, Camp could have more impact than it at first appears to possess.
Graff, who has acted in films such as The Abyss and City Of Hope as well as written Used People, Angie and The Beautician And The Beast, based the movie on his own personal experiences as a summer student at Stagedoor Manor, a performance training camp in upstate New York which the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mandy Moore have attended. The film, which was actually shot at Stagedoor, shows the rigorous rehearsals that go on to put on a new show every two weeks - and this isn't just Oklahoma! These kids stage hardcore drama like Wit and 'Night, Mother as well as adult musicals such as Company and Dreamgirls.
The film opens with a rousing performance of How Shall I See You Through My Tears'. As the song unfurls, Graff introduces our key cast of characters - the handsome but insecure Vlad (Letterle), the talented but unconfident Ellen (Chilcoat) and the flamboyant but confused teen drag queen Michael (De Jesus) - as they prepare to face the ultimate US ritual of belonging, their high school prom.
Before long, however, they are leaving their dysfunctions behind for Camp Ovation where they meet hordes of like minds for whom it's perfectly normal to know Stephen Sondheim's oeuvre off by heart. There's the blonde super-bitch Jill (Alana Allen) and her groupie cum slave Fritzi (Kendrick), there's the overweight Jenna (Taylor) whose father has had her teeth wired shut to stop her eating, there's even a drunken old visiting professor Bert Hanley (Dixon) who is in a slump of disillusionment at not being able to sustain his career after his one big musical hit Children's Crusade years earlier.
Vlad is the key character around whom all revolve. Like a teenage Terence Stamp in Theorem, he can only prosper by pleasing all around him - that includes flirting with Michael, dating Ellen, succumbing to Jill's seductions etc. Graff incorporates other stories - the hilarious feud that develops between Jill and Fritzi, the turnaround in Bert's attitude, the appearance of Stephen Sondheim at the end-of-summer show - but the film works best as an exuberant experience of the scene rather than as a compelling narrative.
And those numbers - performed by the kids themselves - are a joy to watch. From Fritzi's commanding version of The Ladies Who Lunch (from Company) to an ensemble performance of Turkey Lurkey Time (from Promises, Promises) to Jenna's powerhouse Here's Where I Stand, one of two original songs written by Michael Gore (the composer of the song and score for sister movie Fame) and Lynne Ahrens (Ragtime), Graff's staging of the songs is expert. Indeed, in the global wake of Chicago and the renaissance of musical theatre. the soundtrack could be a healthy seller in its own right.
Prod cos: Killer Films, Jersey Films, IFC Productions
US dist: IFC Films
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
Exec prods: John Wells, Richard Klubeck, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, Holly Becker
Prods: Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Jonathan Weisgal
Scr: Todd Graff
Cinematography: Kop Bogdahn
Prod des: Dina Goldman
Ed: Myron Kerstein
Music: Stephen Trask
Main cast: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, Steven Cutts, Vince Rimoldi, Kahiry Bess, Tiffany Taylor, Alana Allen, Anna Kendrick, Don Dixon