High Camp

Think Fame, but sillier

Share on Nextdoor

Camp is a movie about special kids, although, for once, they're not the special kids you were probably expecting. For starters, the teens featured in Camp are not mentally or physically challenged, nor are they, strictly speaking, emotionally damaged. Well, maybe a little bit of that last one, the one about the emotions. But two out of three isn't bad.

The "special-ness" of the kids in Camp has to do with the fact that these are youngsters who, by and large, would rather be belting out Broadway show tunes than buying halter tops at the mall or kicking around a soccer ball. These are kids with show biz in their blood — the old-fashioned, toe-tappin', gotta-sing-gotta-dance show biz, not that modern, motel-trashin', drug-gobblin' rock star kind. Unfathomable and therefore unpopular, these young geeks are the real outsiders, considered way too weird to fit in back at school, and often even within their own homes. The fact that many of them are gay also contributes to their "special" status.

So what's a young, talented and quite possibly queer teen to do with school out and the prospect of an entire, empty summer looming before him? Why, hop on the bus to Camp Ovation, of course — a summer retreat where an artistically inclined and gifted young misfit can go to indulge his creative urges and hone his skills.

That's pretty much all you need to know about Camp. Add a slew of song-and-dance routines, a few romantic dalliances, a comedic mishap here and there and a whole bunch of coming of age, and presto: You've got yourself a movie. In its ever so slightly gender-bent way, Camp's approach is as uncomplicated and, well, creaky as one of those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland Hey kids, let's put on a show! movies.

For what it's worth, Todd Graff, the writer-director of Camp is no stranger to the experience of kids putting on shows. Graff closely modeled the movie's setting after a performing arts camp that he attended as a youngster with the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jennifer Jason Leigh. That, along with the filmmaker's decision to exclusively cast young unknowns in the lead roles, adds an underpinning of authenticity here. Beyond those grace notes, however, Graff's film isn't nearly as fresh-faced as it ought to be.

Unlike the kids it portrays, Camp is a little too lazy for its own good. Graff is far too content to borrow from other movies, something very much at odds with the impression he clearly wants to make of creating something that feels like the real stories of real kids. The real touchstone here, however, is Fame, although you'll find a lot of Meatballs lurking about too. Not to mention odd ends from pretty much every cliché-ridden teen comedy and after-school special you've ever encountered.

None of that is to say that Camp is a bad film; it's not. Camp may be formulaic almost to a fault, but it's also sweet, silly, engagingly earnest and energetic. The movie barely goes through the motions of pretending to be anything original, but at least in fits and starts, it still manages to be quite a bit of fun. Check your expectations at the door, and there's a good chance that, in its own modest way, Camp will show you a fairly good time.

The movie lays out its agenda in the opening scene, a passionate gospel number delivered straight to the camera by a sassy little girl with a very large voice. She punches the line "It's my destiny" in the chorus hook, an entirely appropriate emphasis for a movie about a bunch of kids marked for fame. At least in their own minds.

We're introduced to the main players even as the opening credits roll. There's Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a never-been-kissed type who paid her own brother to take her to her high school prom. Flamboyant teen queen Michael (Robin De Jesus) attended his prom solo — and in full drag — and wound up writhing in pain on the ground, surrounded by a pack of howling high school boys kicking his ribs in.

Then there's Vlad (Daniel Letterle), who might just be the movie's ultimate outsider. At Camp Ovation, where framed pictures of Stephen Sondheim occupy spots of honor typically reserved for sweethearts and male campers tend to prefer the romantic company of one another, Vlad is that rarest of creatures — a heterosexual. "A boy!" gasps one of the camp counselors, jaw hanging open at Vlad's gently swaggering rendition of the Stones' Wild Horses. "An honest to God straight boy!"

The bittersweet frisson between Vlad and his fellow campers, both male and female, is just about the only sort of narrative glue holding together the featherweight fragments of which Camp is comprised. Modestly hunky and not nearly as clueless as he initially appears, Vlad's the object of everyone's desire, as well as the conduit through which more than one camper explores and tests the parameters of his or her sexuality. It's all pretty harmless stuff, though, mostly amounting to a few tentative kisses and a lot of flirting. Occasionally one character or another wonders about the true nature of his sexuality and sleeps with someone he shouldn't have, but that's about the extent of the conflict here.

The movie simply bounces along in its sweetly predictable way, its various, tentatively related episodes unfolding like so many cute but not particularly inspired skits. We get the drama coaches who seem more like drill sergeants than sensitive artistes, the African-American kids playing Hasidic Jews in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, the mousy little girl who's a little too eager to wait hand and foot on the camp's resident Queen Bitch.

We've seen most of this before, but the movie has such a good time with its clichés that it hardly seems to matter. The hunk is seduced by the pretty and popular (but mean) girl, then realizes that the Plain Jane under his nose was Ms. Right all along. The brilliant but bitterly cynical teacher is redeemed by the sheer enthusiasm of his students. The quiet, chunky girl winds up delivering the movie's most powerful musical moment, and the short, gay kid with bad skin realizes that "It's OK to be me."

Camp isn't exactly big on subtlety, but that's part of its awkward charm. The movie's big production numbers spell out the characters' feelings and the movie's "messages" a little too clearly, and many of the film's gay characters are played with a campy gusto that skirts the edges of caricature (and adds to the double-edged nature of the film's title). Still, there's a comfort level with material this familiar, especially when combined with the mild pleasure generated by the minor twists that Camp occasionally brings to the material. After all, what's not to like about a simplified world where most problems are eventually solved, where the nasty are bound to fall, and where every ugly duckling wallflower eventually blooms into a radiantly empowered princess?

All this and a whole lot of singing and dancing too. So how bad could that be?

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.