Vlad is a minority at Camp Ovation, a summer musical-theater proving ground in the Catskills for Broadway-bent adolescents. He is a white, heterosexual teen boy and is the topic of curious bunk-bed chatter until one fellow male camper briskly puts the burning question at hand to rest: “If he’s gay, I’m Tyne Daly.” By the time Vlad unpacks a football and auditions for his counselors by strumming a guitar and singing the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” the verdict seems to be unanimous: “A boy,” responds one female staff member. “An honest-to-god straight boy.”
The handsome, friendly lad (Daniel Letterle) may indeed be straight, but he also has a huge stripe of narcissism and a driving need to be accepted and loved. His fluid demeanor soon feeds a creaky romantic triangle involving the rather plain Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) and a gay Latino named Michael (Robin De Jesus), as the unlikely threesome throw themselves into two months of intense rehearsals, performances and nagging insecurities. So it goes in Camp, writer-director Todd Graff’s serio-comic valentine to confused and battered teen psyches and the actual Stagedoor Manor, whose alumni include Graff himself and such luminaries as Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman.
Camp is about showbiz kids and adults alike who bond, make self-discoveries, forge identities and hurt themselves and each other. It is a celebration of live performance in a tribal setting where the round pegs of a square society can blossom, where passion and commitment are worn on one’s sleeve, where Stephen Sondheim rules, and where the Yellow Brick Road to self-fulfillment and success is pocketed with challenges as well as surprises.
The film is also one of many Sundance Film Festival “official selections” that doesn’t quite live up to its early, enthusiastic buzz. The script is clunky and even lead-footed at times, especially when focusing on gender quandaries. The acting is sometimes tepid, and the backstage drama and resolve are alternately clichéd and corny. The production finds its ultimate strength in the many production numbers gleaned from such shows as Follies and Dreamgirls. Letterle’s creeping personification of boy-band veneer and Graff’s own love and knowledge of a milieu (his take on color-blind casting is a scream), which feels like a low-budget Fame smudged with the fingerprints of Todd Haynes and John Hughes, also give the film some muscle.
The opening collage features a black female who belts out a potent, soulful tune that includes the refrain “How shall I see you through my tears,” while we are introduced to Camp’s three central characters. Vlad practices Dirk Diggler’s acceptance speech in Boogie Nights in a bathroom mirror; Ellen is cruelly turned down by her brother, whom she’s asked to accompany her to a prom; and Michael nearly gets his brains kicked out after wearing fishnet stockings and high heels to his prom.
There are several other key players in the film. One girl (Tiffany Taylor) makes a leap in self-perception after her parents have her mouth wired shut in an effort to curb her weight (“Some Nazi experiment,” says Michael). A bitchy blond bombshell (Alana Allen) gets a dose of her own barbarity when her salve-like groupie (Anna Kendrick) turns on her. And washed up Broadway director Bert (roots-rock singer, songwriter and producer Don Dixon) is saturated with liquor and cynicism.
It’s Bert who delivers a harsh reality check to the Camp Ovation brood that sort of boomerangs and leads to a finale ripped from the confetti-littered conclusion of Footloose. “Fosse is dead,” he says. “Times Square is a theme park. You are headed for waitressing jobs and bitterness and a life of collecting out-of-print albums.” Bert lets them know clearly that the campers here are freaks and mainstream misfits. It is a blow that easily could pound panic into wavering ambition or crush the weak of heart. But, much like this rather freakish movie itself, there’s a labor of love at work that defies all odds and that manages to tangle and untangle its feet and dance with utter abandon to its own drummer.