The praising of Hollywood summertime cinema is the pastime of pale critics who, come late July, start to wonder what the strange yellow orb is hanging in the sky. Hence the gallons of kind ink spilled over the season's sequels, which shipped spoiled but were guzzled nonetheless by parched writers who too often mistake hollow, cynical diversions for actual entertainment -- it go boom, me like, in other words, and even better if there's some hottie playing whoop-ass. Camp, a charming indie that has the familiar feel of a remake, has its share of problems -- some of the acting is more wooden than a park bench, and its final third is so sugary you'd be wise to see a dentist after leaving the theater -- but better a movie with its heart in the right place than a movie without one at all.
Its writer and director is Todd Graff, one of those actors you see in movies and say to yourself, "Oh, that guy." His credits include The Abyss, Strange Days, and Death to Smoochy. He's written for the screen in the past but chose to make Camp his directorial debut, because its subject matter -- young thespians singing show tunes at sleep-away camp -- is pure autobiography. When he was a younger man, Graff attended and later worked as a counselor at Camp Stagedoor in upstate New York, where kids go each summer not to swim or canoe but perform the works of Sondheim and Shakespeare and Beckett. They don't play volleyball or softball; they perform Follies and Romeo and Juliet. They don't break arms, but instead break out into songs from Promises, Promises by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Graff filmed Camp at Stagedoor and renamed it Camp Ovation, a summertime haven for kids who don't fit in the outside world: Michael (Robin de Jesus), who shows up to his prom in high-heel drag and is turned away; Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), the plain girl with the extraordinary singing voice who had to pay her brother to take her to her prom; Vlad (Daniel Letterle), the sole straight kid who might have been a jock had he not discovered his love for acoustic renditions of Rolling Stones songs and musical theater; Jill (Alana Allen), the Britney Spears look-alike who acts every bit the sleep-away diva; and Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), who arrives with jaws wired shut when her parents decided it was the next best thing to sending her to fat camp. They're freaks and fags three seasons of the year, but during summer they're amongst their own kind -- other Broadway wannabes who can sing as loudly as they want and wear as much makeup as they want without fear of getting their asses kicked.
Dropped into their cheery dance routine is surly Bert Hanley (revered '80s college-radio performer and producer Don Dixon), who wrote one great musical years ago and has come to resent the burdensome shadow it's cast on the rest of his career. Hanley rebuffs the kids who adore him and would prefer to spend the summer drinking alone in his room. But this being a movie that just wants to turn that frown upside down, we know Hanley is in line for eventual (and inevitable) resurrection, especially when Vlad finds his long-lost musical and convinces the camp to perform it for the season finale. Graff's greatest misstep as writer-director is that he can't have enough happy endings; not only must he let Hanley have his moment in the spotlight, he keeps him there long enough to get sunburn.
The kids, a cast of unknowns who will likely go on to nice paychecks on and way off Broadway, are uniformly likable, even adorable -- especially the little kid who plays all grown-up in the hysterical Dreamgirls sequence. The performances are uneven -- sometimes they're as natural as characters in a documentary, other times they seem to be reading off cue cards -- but Graff so loves each one he never lets them fall off the stage. Each gets a scene to steal, even if a few have trouble carrying them home. Don Dixon, in fact, gives the worst performance: He seems to be in an entirely different movie, and a very bad one at that.
The movie, like the kids in it, wants so much to be loved it plays more like the old Fame TV series than the movie from which it sprang: It's perky and peppy and dark only during the scenes shot at night. Everything ends on a high note, to the point where the film threatens to lapse into silly self-parody during a barn-house sing-along; you expect Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to show up and put on a show. The making-of, airing on IFC, might even be better than the film: It has the will-they-make-it tension the film lacks, as well as genuine surprise and copious scenes of the kids rehearsing and training. The movie fakes what the making-of doesn't have to.
Camp, in fact, would be perfect without its scenes of plot and exposition, its tale of tortured teendom and hyperactive hormones. Graff is to be commended for treating teen homosexuality with care and humor -- "Have you ever tried heterosexuality?" Vlad asks Michael, who answers, "What -- you mean have sex with a straight guy?" -- but the Vlad-Michael-Ellen love triangle feels altogether square. Meatballs handled the sleep-away sex stuff better; here it feels like filler between the killer musical numbers that make even special guest Stephen Sondheim smile on his way out the door.