Actor-screenwriter Todd Graff's first feature, "Camp," is an entertaining update of "Fame" centered around a summer camp for young performers in upstate New York where outsiders find acceptance two months a year.

Actor-screenwriter Todd Graff’s first feature, “Camp,” is an entertaining update of “Fame” centered around a summer camp for young performers in upstate New York where outsiders find acceptance two months a year. While the script is far from robust and flirts giddily with the kind of schmaltzy emotional peaks patented by the Broadway musicals it mines for material, this is a big-hearted, exuberant, compassionate film with a wicked sense of humor and terrific songs performed by some preternaturally talented kids. Gay audiences will be first in line, but some serious marketing muscle could pull in adolescents, who should respond to the all-inclusive message.

While the setting here is called Camp Ovation, its inspiration and shooting location was the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center/Camp at Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. Graff attended the camp as a child and later worked and taught there, including a stint supervising 9-year-old Robert Downey Jr. The knockout musical opening introduces the ensemble’s three principal characters preparing for their junior prom and establishes their misfit status while camper Dee (Sasha Allen) leads R&B-gospel number “How Shall I See You Through My Tears.” Vlad (Daniel Letterle) psyches himself up for success in front of the mirror, Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) pays her older brother to pose as her date, while Michael (Robin De Jesus) shows up in drag and is badly beaten by jocks.

Other characters are seen arriving at the camp, including Jill (Alana Allen), a bitchy blonde who immediately attracts the slavish worship of darkly intense Fritzi (Anna Kendrick). Vlad’s entry provokes swoons from Michael and the gay-boy posse as well as a flicker of interest from romantically inexperienced Ellen. A skateboarder in a puka-shell necklace, Vlad looks like an alien in these surroundings. His guitar-accompanied Rolling Stones audition song elicits gasps from teachers unaccustomed to seeing “an honest-to-God straight boy.”

The narrative throughline is fairly flimsy: Saddled with secret neuroses and pathologically dependent on being liked, Vlad flirts with everyone, romancing Ellen after a brief fling with Jill; Michael yearns for love and acceptance from his uncaring parents; and Bert (Don Dixon), a washed-up Broadway composer who never managed to equal his one classic hit, drowns his sense of failure in booze and makes it his mission to prepare the kids for disappointment.

Piloting the haphazardly structured action toward a splashy final number at the camp’s benefit show, Graff gives each actor a chance to shine. All the kids earn a stint in the spotlight or a moment of personal connection, liberation, vindication or redemption.

This happens via comic episodes like Fritzi’s hilarious Eve Harrington-esque triumph during the “Ladies Who Lunch” number from “Company,” or in more emotional scenes. One of the best of these involves weight-challenged Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), who rages against her belittling father and reclaims her dignity in a show-stopping power ballad.

There’s a disarming sweetness to the film’s treatment of adolescent emotional problems, and even its approach via Michael to gay issues — often a minefield of cliche — avoids the maudlin self-pity of the similar character in “Fame.” Unlike other showbiz pics like the ghastly “Center Stage,” no one could accuse “Camp” of downplaying the prevalence of gay males in entertainment, though there’s nothing too confronting for open-minded straight teens to digest.

Culled from a nationwide search of dance schools and open calls, the young cast members have no previous film or television experience. Though chosen primarily for their prodigious singing and dancing talents, the appealing kids all are natural and convincing in dramatic scenes. In addition to being represented by his songs, and in a good joke involving his framed photo on Michael’s desk, musical royalty Stephen Sondheim cameos as himself.

Lenser Kip Bogdahn and production designer Dina Goldman give the low-budget operation a sharp, colorful look, and composer Stephen Trask (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) contributes a gentle score that punctuates the many musical numbers. While pic’s too long for this type of frothy material and some of the vignettes could have been more fluidly linked, editor Myron Kerstein keeps individual scenes short and tight, and the movie is so unfailingly good-natured and engaging, it’s hard to imagine what could be cut.

Camp

Production

An IFC Films release of an IFC Prods. presentation of a Jersey Films, Killer Films, Laughlin Park Pictures production. Produced by Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Jonathan Weisgal. Executive producers, John Wells, Richard Klubeck, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, Holly Becker. Co-producers, Allen Bain, Dan Levine. Directed, written by Todd Graff.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Kip Bogdahn; editor, Myron Kerstein; music, Stephen Trask; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Dina Goldman; set decorator, Tora Peterson; costume designer, Dawn Weisberg; sound, Robert Larrea; choreographers, Michele Lynch, Jerry Mitchell; associate producers, Miriam Kazdin, Brad Simpson; assistant director, Cecily Kaston; casting, Bernard Telsey, Victoria Pettibone, Will Cantler, David Vaccari. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition), Jan. 21, 2003. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Vlad - Daniel Letterle Ellen - Joanna Chilcoat Michael - Robin De Jesus Jenna - Tiffany Taylor Dee - Sasha Allen Jill - Alana Allen Fritzi - Anna Kendrick Bert - Don Dixon

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