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Dustin Putman

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Camp (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by Todd Graff
Cast: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin de Jesus, Don Dixon, Sasha Allen, Tiffany Taylor, Anna Kendrick, Alana Allen, Steven Cutts, Vince Rimoldi, Kahiry Bess, Stephen DiMenna, Dequina Moore, Patrick Cubbedge, Ryan Fitzgerald, Eddie Clark, Leslie Frye, Egle Petraityte, Stephen Sondheim
2003 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual situations and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 23, 2003.

A summer camp for teenage misfits. First loves. Sexual identity issues. Coming-of-age experiences. And a gruff counselor/ex-Broadway writer who needs only his singing-and-acting-obsessed students to wash his cynicism away. Written and directed by Todd Graff, "Camp" probably didn't seem like anything that special on paper—simply a series of stock characters and cliche-ridden subplots. The film is a testimony, then, of how a marginal screenplay can be miraculously transformed into something fresh and intimate through filmed images, naturalistic performances, and magical music numbers. That's right, "Camp" is not only a coming-of-age dramedy and a camp farce, but also a zippy musical that often reminds of a cross between 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and 2002's "Chicago." It may not match either of those two one-of-a-kind entertainments (some of its storylines really are rather commonplace), but with energy to spare, it's not for a lack of trying.

The time is now. The place is the woodsy, secluded Camp Ovation. And for an eclectic group of teenage drama freaks, this Broadway-themed summer camp is what they live for throughout the other 9 months of the year. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is so insecure outside of performing, she tried to pay her brother to take her to the prom, while buddy Michael (Robin de Jesus) was the victim of a gay bashing incident when he cross-dressed for the dance. His parents don't even have it in them to come see him in one of his plays. Ellen and Michael's worlds—and several of the other kids', for that matter—are turned upside down with the appearance of "an honest-to-goodness straight guy," the angelic, eager-to-please Vlad (Daniel Letterle). Everyone, it seems, has a crush on Vlad and, in return, Vlad is happy to fulfill their wishes if it means getting attention and being liked by all.

Meanwhile, snooty sexpot Jill (Alana Allen) is more than happy to have roommate Fritzi (Anne Kendrick) act as her personal slave—until the luster fades and she drops her like yesterday's news. In return, Fritzi plots revenge on Jill, intent on sabotaging her next moment in the spotlight of a stage. Others filling the rest of the central roles include the overweight Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose look-obsessed father has wired her mouth shut in an attempt to get her to lose weight; longtime camper Dee (Sasha Allen), whose voice has the strength and range of a pro but who secretly yearns to have someone of the opposite sex interested in her; and counselor Bert (Don Dixon), who has all but given up on his flailing Broadway career until his students teach him to never stop reaching for his goals.

With not a single cast member a veteran film actor, but with each of them immensely talented as performers, there is an unaffected truthfulness to each of the characters that make them seem real, as opposed to scripted. Because we have never seen them before, and because they are so believable in what they do, we accept them in their roles. Above all, "Camp" excels in its performances, good enough to transcend its predictable plotting and, in some instances, overwrought dramatics. One such moment comes in the finale, when Jenna stands up before her materialistic parents and, through the beautiful song "Here's Where I Stand" and vocals by actress Tiffany Taylor, tells them to accept her for who she is. The reaction shots of Jenna's father go overboard, exaggerating an emotion that could have been more subtly handled, but they cannot take away from the sheer beauty of the sequence.

Truth be told, there isn't a weak performance in the group of leads. Daniel Letterle has the handsome, boy-next-door looks needed, but he also has an unforeseen depth to him as Vlad, the most original character in the piece. Vlad may be straight, but that does not mean he is exempt from doing whatever is needed to be accepted and loved by everyone. Through his often misleading actions, Vlad remains likable, because Letterle plays him as someone who isn't purposefully malicious. Joanna Chilcoat and Robin de Jesus fulfill the two remaining roles of a potential love triangle that may or may not ever happen. Chilcoat effectively brings out Ellen's inexperienced nature while refusing to make her seem naive, while de Jesus touchingly portrays Michael as a young man who isn't confused with his sexuality, but is confused by how it has changed some of the relationships in his life that matter the most.

Special notice also must go to the exuberant Sasha Allen, as Dee, who has a wise and worldly quality to her face not easily forgotten. It helps that as strong as all of the young actors' voices are, Sasha Allen's is the most amazing. Her opening number, "How Shall I See You Through My Tears," gives the film a weighty push right from the start.

The best scene in "Camp," set to the characters' rendition of the gorgeous song, "Century Plant," symbolizes what the movie is first and foremost about, and how it is about. When Vlad discovers an unproduced musical piece by Bert, he and the rest of the company gather around to perform it together, something they refuse to stop doing even when Bert finds out what they are doing. As they continue to sing, joyful in getting to do what they love, Bert finally heeds the lyrics of his own song, that "it's never too late to play the game." It is one of the most powerful cinematic moments this year.

From a subjective point of view, "Camp" is by-the-numbers and unsurprising, and its characters are types seen countless times in other films. Through the magic of song, however, the viewer learns more about the people than could ever been explained in spoken words. The result is something a good deal more remarkable than it otherwise might have been without the music. A motion picture ideal for teenage and twentysomething audiences tired of the same old mainstream things, "Camp" is well-intentioned, full of amiable energy, and exceedingly entertaining with each passing minute.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman