Camp Ovation does not look like much, but to the high school kids who return there summer after summer, it is close to heaven. Heaven being Broadway, that is.
Camp Ovation is a camp for “theater kids,” those kids who may not be familiar with the songs on the radio but have memorized the entire oeuvre of Stephen Sondheim, including the legendary flops that even Sondheim has probably forgotten. They can’t catch a ball, but they know every kind of stagecraft, from tap-dancing to sword-fighting. These kids feel completely alone all year long, except when they come together each summer to put on a full theatrical production every two weeks.
If this sounds like Fame with pine trees, you’ve got the right idea. Writer/director Todd Graff filmed the story at the real-life theater camp he attended and then worked at as a counselor. His affection for the camp and the kids and and his eye (and ear) for detail are very engaging. When the kids are first gathering at the buses that will take them to the camp, one girl re-introduces herself to another with a marvelous throwaway line, reminding her that they had appeared together in the suicide drama, “‘night Mother.”
But, as it should be, what is best about the movie is the kids. At the center of the story are Vlad (Daniel Letterle) and Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat). The kids are a little suspicious of Vlad because he seems too normal — an all-American straight boy who likes to skateboard and throw a football. Ellen is a more typical Ovation camper, a sensitive and insecure girl. Her close friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), is a gay boy who was thrown out of his school prom and beaten up because he arrived in drag. Then there is Jill (Alana Allen), already a diva, and Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), her devoted sidekick.
The performances by the kids are terrific, with Broadway show tunes from “Promises, Promises,” “Follies,” “Gospel at Colonus,” and “Dreamgirls.” Kendrick and Sasha Allen (Dee) are standouts, with true show-stopping Broadway voices.
There is some sharp dialogue, well delivered. The plot is too cluttered, however, including not just the expected romantic complications, adolescent angst, and even the future of Broadway musicals, but also a one-hit composer with a drinking problem that is resolved too neatly, and an All About Eve subplot about a sabotaged performer that is resolved too messily. The Vlad character is particularly overdone, burdened with at least two too many plot twist/quirk-style complications. Letterle does his best, but no one could pull all of that off.
Parents should know that the movie has very strong language and sexual references and situations for a PG-13. An adult character is an alcoholic. One of the movie’s strengths is the way that the love for theater gives these kids so much in common that other differences, including race and sexual orientation, are warmly embraced.
Families who see this movie should talk about how several of the kids are deeply hurt by parents who do not support their interests and talents. They should also talk about Bert’s bitterness — why did he think it would make him feel better to speak to the kids the way he did? Why didn’t it?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Fame (some mature and upsetting material).