Camp (2003)

2003-07-25 (Limited release)

A patchwork quilt for the unloved misfits it glorifies and indulges, Todd Graff’s Camp has a quarter of the polish of Chicago, but three times the humanity. Coming on the heels of that star-studded musical’s Oscar triumph, this plucky, no-frills production won’t make as much noise, but I’ll bet it leaves a more enduring imprint on its impressionable demographic.

Who is that target audience? First-time director Graff has said he made the movie for the kid that he was, a theater geek who didn’t fit in. Troubled and truant, the 14-year-old Graff was sent by his parents to Stagedoor Manor, a summer camp in New York for budding actors, singers, and dancers. Renamed Camp Ovation for the movie, it becomes the setting for a rehash of Graff’s formative years — and a canvas for the fantasies of today’s moon-eyed outcasts.

Alternately inept and beguiling, Camp opens with a reference to a kindred spirit. The camera fixes on a poster for Boogie Nights — another movie about improvised families and big dreamers — and pans down to Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a teenager doing a Diggler-esque spiel (sans penile coup de grace) in front of his bedroom mirror. The opening montage introduces two other teens: Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a homely girl with no date to the prom, and Michael (Robin De Jesus), a Hispanic student who shows up to his in a sequined dress.

Summer’s onset brings the three together. Newbie Vlad bunks with Ovation regular Michael, who can’t stop ogling the all-American teen. Neither can Ellen, a cheery type used to playing the female-buddy role. A dose of rock and balls to the defiantly gay camp, Vlad breaks out the guitar for his first audition and lets loose with some Stones. The performance prompts a counselor to gasp, “A boy! An honest-to-god straight boy!”

Vlad’s equilibrium-shaking arrival is but one of many intrigues in a camp rife with drama — hardly a surprise, considering its emotive occupants. Ovation turns out to be a sanctuary for rejects: Plump Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) arrives with her jaw wired shut, a parental directive that reduces her radiant voice to a comical warble; Michael has been disowned by his parents, appalled by his jump out of the closet. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional dynamic builds between glamourpuss Jill (Alana Allen) and plain Fritzi (Anna Kendrick). The scheming Eve to Jill’s Margo Channing, Fritzi plays the minion to the lethal blonde, until a pep talk with the director empowers her to take center stage by any means necessary.

Not least of the redemptions-in-waiting is camp counselor Bert Handley (Don Dixon). A has-been with a drinking problem, the former Broadway hitmaker plays the party-pooper who rains on the camp’s parade. “Who are you people?” the disbelieving Bert asks the aspiring thesps at one point, before launching into a tirade about the unhappy future in the service industry that awaits them all. Can anything touch his cold, cynical heart? Will an impromptu performance of his unperformed opus do the trick?

It ruins nothing to say that it does. Defiantly cliché-ridden and unabashedly hokey, Camp aspires to the condition of its title. When the gang performs Victoria Williams’ “Century Plant” — heard here as the buried masterpiece that revives Handley’s dormant soul — the uplift is brazenly unironic. (The performance even takes place in a barn: it’s that kind of movie.) The goosebumps, however, are real, and it’s hard to tell if it’s because the scene is so cheesy or, despite yourself, so rousing.

Of course, Camp — and camp — asks us to consider both conditions as inextricable from each other. In her landmark 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag laid out a loose definition of the camp sensibility. “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous,” she writes. In addition,

What Camp taste responds to is “instant character”… and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a taste of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of the theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.

That intensity of feeling is what the wunderkinds of Ovation live for; these kids close their eyes when they sing. The movie they inhabit requires a kind of double vision, asking us to see the fabulous in the corny and excessive.

If anything, Graff’s movie may not be ludicrous enough. Considering that it announces its project in its title, the movie has suffered some puzzling misinterpretations. Many critics have dismissed the movie as shallow and trite and embarrassingly earnest — seemingly unaware that if it were deep and nuanced and knowing, it would fail to be campy at all.

Of course, genuine ineptitude shouldn’t be mistaken for campiness. For all of its conceptual sophistication, the movie can be as ragtag as the campers’ musical numbers. It’s not terribly shapely, and the script sags in parts. Early scenes that seem like setups for running jokes are left stranded in the first act; premature climaxes abound, while the real one feels anticlimactic. Graff also relies on tired tropes — the upbeat montage scored to a pop song, the revelatory nighttime two-hander, intense rehearsals punctured by cathartic laughs — that saddle the movie with a predictable rhythm. Perhaps nodding to the clichés of movie musicals and teen flicks, Camp stumbles because Graff’s style simply isn’t extravagant enough to light up the familiar.

What the movie lacks in deftness, however, it makes up for in spirit. The filmmakers’ affection for their source material and the thea-tuh is as obvious as it is infectious. Graff introduces each number with a Max Fischer-esque title card, a faux Playbill cover of the musical and its authors. (Among the works sampled are Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises, Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s Dreamgirls, and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and Company.) The stage worship reaches its apotheosis with a climactic cameo that sends the camp into a tizzy, as it did the theater-savvy audience at my preview screening.

Some might perceive an element of snobbery in Graff’s name-checking and -dropping. A throwaway bit in which an audience member gingerly praises Margaret Edson’s Wit as “dark, but entertaining” hints at the movie’s Ghost World-ly attitude. But Camp really does belong to the kids. For them, performance is more than just a compulsion: it’s a refuge. Camp Ovation gives them a chance to be their glorious, unbound selves, even if it’s just for the summer. Unlike the animatronic mannequins who belt mindlessly on the odious American Juniors, Camp‘s kids don’t have stardom in their sightlines when they’re onstage. Only their identity is at stake.

It’s that spirit of solidarity — among the performers, between filmmaker and cast, company and audience — that finally elevates Graff’s movie. If it weren’t pitched to the Michaels in the crowd, the whole thing would feel painfully self-congratulatory. “Camp is generous,” Sontag wrote, and the same goes for Camp. The movie approaches its audience with open arms, asking for love and all too willing to give it. Grumps will grouse that it’s too eager to please, too shrill, too sincere… too damned much. They’re right, of course, and it wouldn’t work any other way.