Being a teenager is difficult, but when you’re a teenager aspiring to be a music star, that difficulty gets multiplied by 10. So goes the tune of “Camp,” the directorial debut by actor/writer Todd Graff.
“Camp” has its roots in “Fame,” that 1980 take on teens in a performing-arts school who dream of superstardom. Set at the famous Stage Door Manor, a summer music camp, “Camp” is noticeably less glamorous, even sloppy and frayed at the edges, like the hem of a discount T-shirt. But these qualities — along with a defiant, don’t-give-a-damn amateurism — make “Camp” all the more likable.
Graff shot the whole thing in 23 days, working with a cast of nonprofessionals at Stage Door Manor (renamed in the movie as Camp Ovation), and using its facilities. The big bonus for him was getting the rights to the music — including such popular numbers as “Promises, Promises” and “Dreamgirls” — for almost nothing, on the strength of the screenplay and Graff’s indomitable determination to get this work made.
Playwright/composer Stephen Sondheim allowed the use of three of his songs, including “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and even puts in a cameo appearance. If enthusiasm and goodwill were the only ingredients needed for a successful movie, “Camp” would have won a string of awards.
While “Camp” as a whole is likable (especially the various stage productions the kids put on) the characters, taken individually, can be annoying. It almost makes you happy for their absent parents, who get a whole summer off from dealing with their offspring.
The opening scenes stress that the kids signing up for Camp Ovation are a little strange (freaks, geeks, wall flowers), but as the story progresses, our sympathy for their strangeness mutates into an undefined urge to slap each one upside the head.
Take, for instance, Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a guitar-strumming, skate-boarding Prince Charming who draws the delighted remark, “Oh wow, a boy, a real, straight boy!” from the instructors. He’s attractive to everyone, including the lonely drag queen Michael (Robin de Jesus), who suffers from acne and a tendency to whine (“My parents don’t love me, my parents don’t love me”). But Vlad has his own insecurities, and a pathological craving for attention (“I need to be looked at, all the time!”).
Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a frumpy, good-sport type who practically asks Vlad to break her heart. Jill (Alana Allen) is a blonde rich-bitch who seduces him, then noisily announces her triumph. The mousy Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) opts to be Jill’s slave, but later turns into a bitch herself and pulls a series of vengeful pranks worthy of Lady Macbeth. Jill retaliates by nearly pulling Fritzi’s hair out.
Though this may sound contradictory, it’s to the director’s credit that not one lovable, altruistic teen is in sight. This may be a summer camp, but it’s also show biz — and likability is never an issue. Everyone is after his own spotlight, and they’re practically encouraged by the staff to cultivate their ruthlessness.
In this way, “Camp” echoes the grisly greediness of “Chicago,” another musical with a moral: You can’t be nice and be in show business, too. Passivity is never a virtue here. It’s about clawing your way to center stage. It’s about survival of the showiest. And it demonstrates that teenhood is the best time to hone these skills — the time of life when one is most concerned with identity and self-assertion and wanting to talk about it forever over campfires and by moonlit lakes. No wonder Stage Door Manor has met with so much success.
The film’s best moments come when the kids tire of their own self-absorption and get on with the business of performing. It’s the only time they can be liberated from themselves and channel their energies into what Graff calls “The Craft.” Which is probably why the kids stop at nothing for the chance to get onstage and hold the spotlight for as long as possible. In “Camp,” the lure of show biz is explored as much as the mind-set that’s attracted to it. It may be an old story, but there’s just enough fresh exuberance to convince us it’s worth retelling.