A little edgier than the “High School Musical” series and a little smarter than the usual tween fare, “Bandslam” is a refreshing late-summer treat for tweens, teens, and their families from the always-welcome Walden Media, a top provider of quality family entertainment.
Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), an Ohio music-loving loner who knows his Thin Lizzie from his Velvet Underground and has mental conversations with David Bowie, is relieved and delighted when his single mother (Lisa Kudrow) tells him that they are moving to New Jersey. He is often picked on, with no friends, and he looks forward to starting over in a new school.
Though he fears it will be just like Ohio (“Different kids, same me”), the new school is different. A music group competition called Bandlam is “Texas high school football big.” A confident and popular senior named Charlotte (“Aly & AJ’s” Aly Michalka) invites him to help her take care of the day care kids, and they become friends. Once a part of the school’s champion band Glory Dogs, Charlotte and some other musicians are forming a new group. Before he knows it, Will is their manager, naming them for a line from “Waiting for Godot” — “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On.” Will is in “uncharted territory,” making friends, separating from his mother, and even developing feelings of more than friendship for the winsome Sa5m (“The 5 is silent”) (HSM’s Vanessa Hudgens).
There are heartaches, misunderstandings, and setbacks (this is high school, after all), but there is music and there is a public apology (this is a romance, after all), and triumph (it is a movie for kids after all).
Hudgens, unfortunately, is saddled with a character who speaks in monotones. It would be nice to see her in a role that gives her more of a chance to show her spirit. Newcomer Connell is able, especially in his scenes with Kudrow, who makes the most of her underwritten mom role. Michalka has the most challenging role and handles it very capably. The characters talk rock but sing pop. Only Michalka has a rocker’s attitude. But these characters have more depth and believability than most movies in this genre. Director Todd Graff, who made “Camp,” again shows his sympathetic understanding for kids who want to perform. And, most important, this movie has a strong foundation in its understanding of classic rock that does as much as any of the writing, directing, or performers to keep us rooting for Will’s group to go on.