Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Camp



USA 2003 : Todd GRAFF : 114 mins

Camp is a paradoxical kind of crowdpleaser: one that, while certain to delight and entertain certain sections of the moviegoing public, will surely alienate and thoroughly annoy those immune to its puppyishly endearing charms. As a rough rule of thumb, the closer the viewer is to the characters shown on screen post-adolescents desperate to forge a career in showbiz – the more pleasure he or she will get out of the experience. Meanwhile, anyone with a low tolerance threshold for Broadway show-tunes in general, and the work of Stephen Sondheim in particular, is warned to keep as far away as possible.

Though set in a summer camp for aspiring actors, singers and dancers, the title of Camp is of course as much a statement of attitude and intent as a geographical description in this milieu, its no big deal that several of the kids are gay, including Michael (Robin De Jesus), who we first see attending his normal high-school prom in drag. But, presumably wary of scaring off straight viewers, writer-director Graff takes care to make his film as inoffensive and unobjectionable as possible, building his script around a conventional heterosexual relationship between hunky nice-guy Vlad (Daniel Letterle) and the slightly awkward Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat).

And what a clunkily familiar romance this turns out to be to inject a bit of drama, Graff even falls back on that most whiskery of love-story cliches: the bit where the girl inadvertently comes across an open door through which she sees her beau clinched in the arms of another. Needless to say, true love wins out fundamentally, Camp is a very old-fashioned kind of artificial teen romance, right down to the perkily bright pastels that dominate the production design, sets and costumes (by Dina Goldman, Tora Peterson and Dawn Weisberg respectively) as captured by Kip Bogdahns bland, high-grade DV camerawork.

But there surely can’t be that many real-life teenagers who would choose to listen to the kind of music that dominates this soundtrack as indicated by on-screen titles, the tunes performed by the kids range from the late sixties to the early eighties, and are strictly established Broadway classics. Each of the main characters has their turn in the spotlight, and they’re certainly a talented lot: the best of several showstoppers is a terrific rendition of Sondheims Ladies Who Lunch by Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), who sheds her previously mousy persona with startling speed after being dissed by her vacuous blonde role-model Jill (Alana Allen).

This number is staged with wit and flair, but too often the musical interludes are overlong and get in the way of the action, padding the film out way beyond its natural 85-90 minute running time. Graffs exhaustive approach to the songs may sorely try the patience of viewers who arent aficionados of musical theatre such audience members will probably find themselves in full agreement with grouchy visiting expert Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a burned-out former wannabe-Sondheim who suddenly turns on his pupils with a withering blast of what will sound to many viewers very much like common sense.

Bob Fosse is dead! he snaps, ruthlessly ticking the (stunned) kids off for being so devoted to music written before any of them were born. But just as were savouring what seems like a bracingly unexpected turn of events, Graffs preference for cuddly, show-must-go-on sentimentality kicks in. Hanleys long-gestating masterpiece (the holy grail of musical theatre!) is (handily) discovered and staged by the kids. Youre a bunch o little freaks! he exclaims approvingly, having undergone a somewhat speedy and implausible change of heart. In the world of Camp, however, nobody can stay miserable for long and that’s an order.

13th June, 2003
(seen 6th June: Showcase, Dudley)

by Neil Young