“Dear David Bowie.” As a way to start up a movie about a high school band, you could do worse than this phrase. Each day, Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) writes a missive to the man he admires most, describing his hopes and disappointments, his feelings about school (“It’s mostly like Novocain for the soul”). He also writes about music. Because Will’s tastes and interests diverge from those of his peers, he imagines in Bowie a kindred spirit, someone who will appreciate what he appreciates.
At the beginning of Bandlsam, Will is not close to appreciating anything. Having suffered just the latest indignity at the hands of a bully, he gets off the school bus with wet hair. His mother Karen (Lisa Kudrow) greets him with sympathy and good news: she has a new job, she says, so they’ll be moving to Lodi, New Jersey. For a moment Will is happy. But only for a moment: he soon remembers that he’s done this before, moved to a new school, and every time it’s the same: “It’s not gonna be any better,” he sighs, shoulders slumped. “That’s the Will Burton I know and love,” Karen jokes, before she says what she always says: “You are not the problem. You are terrific.”
Karen is right. This kid is pretty terrific, and that little plot point goes a long way toward saving Bandslam from being the movie it might have been, that is, another iteration of High School Musical or Bring It On, though it shares elements of both. As much as Will’s a misfit and a loner, he’s also yearning to connect—and what better way to make that happen than by giving him a group project? Or, even better, two projects, each with its own pretty girl attached Within minutes of his arrival at Martin Van Buren High School, Will has been is paired with Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgeons) in Human Science class, assigned to come up with biographies of each other to present to the other students. At first, he’s daunted, not only by her gothy-lite look and predilection for reading real books like O, Pioneers, but also by her determined distinctiveness. “The 5 is silent,” she informs him when she reveals her name. Okay.
Sa5m could not be more different than Will’s other project partner, the boisterously self-confident former cheerleader Charlotte (Alyson Michalka)—except that both are played by Disney TV stars. When she hears that Will knows something about music, Charlotte has him over to her lace to check out her new band, hoping to get them prepared for the statewide contest “Bandslam.” They’re a feeble if enthusiastic trio—two short boys backing their vivacious singer. Will immediately diagnoses what’s wrong: they need to lose the drum machine and get a real human drummer (this will be Basher, played by Ryan Donowho, grappling with anger management issues), come up with a good song, and add some sound-thickening backing instruments (keyboards, horns, and a cello played by the Elvish-speaking Irene [Elvy Yost]). (He names the band “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On,” conveying something about how he feels about his own involvement.) Will does Bowie proud, encouraging the musicians to loosen up and innovate—of course, this leads to a great sound right away, not realistic, but efficient: you don’t need more, you’ve seen something like this movie before.
Knowing that you know the drill, Bandslam leaves out other too-explanatory details, and moreover, lets the kids be kidlike rather than movie-kidlike. For one thing, it mostly opts out of showing adults as role models, good or bad. This is a teens’ world, their urgent needs and fears shape the film’s perspective. Apart from Karen, moms and dads are invisible and teachers, briefly on-screen, are mostly inattentive and careless. Also to the film’s focus on the kids’ issues, Karen’s primary function is to fill in Will’s history. The revelation of this history brings predictable drama and the requisite drummer joke (fiercely proud and protective of her son, Karen insists that she’d do it all again to have her wonderful boy, and at the time, well, “I was 19 and he was a drummer!”).
None of this plotty stuff is particularly persuasive, but it does give Will a chance to sort out his mixed-up feelings about Sa5m and Charlotte, as the girls both have their own complicated family situations, barely noted, but enough to suggest that they’re more like kids you might know than the cardboard facsimiles who usually populate high school movies. That’s not to say Bandslam avoids all generic pitfalls: the montages are too cute, the bullies are ignorant, the on-stage climax is way too square after all the efforts to resist convention. (That said, when the heretofore modest Sa5m cuts loose with her big finale song, she’s pretty much irresistible.) Most happily, Will’s a sweet and very supportive boy, original and rebellious in his way, and Sa5m and Charlotte are right-off independent girls who don’t have to learn how to kowtow to be accepted or admired. If it sounds like a David Bowie song, that’s only good.