What distinguishes this often witty, but just as often tedious, film is its schizophrenic tone: It's half inane teen comedy a la Meatballs and half drag queen doc Paris Is Burning.
Camp Ovation, you see, is a drama camp populated by drama queens of the highest order. These kids have the braces, baby fat, knobby knees and prominent Adams apples of most preadolescent dorks, but they can belt out a show tune like Ethel Merman and keep framed pictures of musical theater master Stephen Sondheim by their bunk beds.
Each summer the campers escape their nasty, defeatist parents and school bullies to luxuriate in a camp so unlike all others, where the sports counselor is a pariah, shunned by kids who would rather exercise their vocal cords.
But this year at Camp Ovation, there's a true exotic thrown in among the Latino drag queens and the overweight girls who love them.
Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a blond, wholesome heterosexual god who tempts the boys and girls of Camp Ovation with the forbidden fruit of normality. Not since "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" have flaming homosexuals and straight boys hit it off so well. Vlad takes a shine to his depressed gay roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, one of the few young actors who allows the human side of his character to shine through), who only recently, and suicidally, attended his school prom in drag.
Besides befriending Michael, Vlad performs a number of other virtual and literal pity-fucks around camp: He courts the unglamorous Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) and attempts to restore hope in the newly arrived and embittered composer, Bert Hanley (Don Dixon).
Hanley is an angry drunk who rages "You little bitch!" at campers, and in one pivotal scene spews cruel vitriol at the teenage thespians when he predicts they'll all turn out to be waitresses and obsessive collectors of original cast albums. Hanley, who delivers venomous bon mots in a soft Southern hiss, is the film's best character, providing a refreshing bitchslap to the frothy, showboating kids. Naturally, the eager teens must prove Hanley wrong while reacquainting him with the spiritual pleasures of jazz hands and razzle-dazzle.
Like other movies in which theater is the glue that binds its characters together, Camp proposes that a tortured snare drum and a tube of glitter can gloss over whatever ails ya. The language of show biz speaks with a conviction that defies articulation: After years of trying to prove herself to her fat-fearing father, overweight camper Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) somehow "convinces" him of her worth in one magical, soul-stirring song. Obnoxious parents, depressed alcoholics, they all melt away in the alternative campfire of the warming communal footlights.
Fame as interpreted by Bertolt Brecht, Camp is both an utterly straight-faced teen drama distinguished by the cornball highs and lows of the genre and a partial self-referential send-up. How many camp movies, after all, have their teen casts make knowing jokes about Stella Dallas and references to All About Eve? Todd Graff's film is not only about camp, it is camp, full of The Boys in the Band boozy chortling about homosexuality and plenty of scenes of the campers in drag.
Produced by Killer Films (Velvet Goldmine and Boys Don't Cry), with music penned by Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-writer Stephen Trask, Camp is thoroughly steeped in the gimlet-eyed perspective of gay culture. But despite such sophistication, Camp absurdly retains the perky, sugary look and feel of the worst teen comedies, especially in its most lifeless, yawn-inducing boy-meets-girl romance between hetero-god Vlad and chubby-but-sincere Ellen.
Nice kids to be sure, but they lack charisma. For all its gay-influenced knowingness, the film is ultimately incredibly square and clean-scrubbed. It fails to plumb the potential perversity of Vlad's seemingly ambidextrous sexuality or maidservant Fritzi's (Anna Kendrick) kinky devotion to spoiled princess Jill (Alana Allen). Surely in a camp inspired by the real Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., where Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr. and Graff once honed their acting chops, there was more intrigue and precocious experimentation than this wholesome nerd-fest suggests.
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