High school musicals have their scrappiest number in “Bandslam,” an awkward, earnest, almost irresistible indie whose pair of distaff Disney Channel alums — both belting out soundtrack pop — give it a decent shot in the battle for tween B.O. Those 15 and up will hear off-key notes in the ballad of Will, a young, music-loving nerd who finds his groove with vocal assistance from dissimilarly attractive females. But if even one-tenth of the girls who bit into “Twilight” lend their ears to Summit’s latest bid for kid cred, “Bandslam” will make its cracking voice heard amid the summer’s boy-based blockbuster clique.
As much as “Bandslam” takes its dramatic cues (plus star Vanessa Hudgens) from Disney’s “High School Musical” trilogy, the movie seems a natural step for co-writer/director Todd Graff, whose “Camp” put performing arts kids on the indie-film stage back in 2003. Again, Graff’s ingratiating show-must-go-on(-and-on) sensibility pushes formulaic material past sweet and into sappy, as third-act scenes — up to and including the climactic contest performance — simply don’t know when to quit.
Best by far is the film’s first hour, punctuated by a funny pair of smooching scenes between geeky Will (Gaelan Connell) and each of his gal-pals, with relative newcomer Connell seeming to channel the say-anything rock-fan innocence of the young John Cusack. Introduced tapping out a plaintive email to his idol, David Bowie (who responds with a cameo late in the film), curly-haired, dewy-eyed Will becomes the new kid at Van Buren High in Lodi, N.J., when he moves there with his single mom, Karen (Lisa Kudrow).
Thrust into the standard mix of jocks, goths and goons, Will, a wallflower umbilically tied to his iPod, somehow manages to bond with both Hudgens’ sullen bookworm Sa5m (“The ‘5’ is silent,” she explains) and peppy senior Charlotte (Aly Michalka), an ex-cheerleader-turned-garage-bander who recognizes Will’s knowledge of vintage rock and recruits him to manage her group, Glory Dogs.
En route to securing the band a key slot in the tristate competition of the film’s title, newly confident Will adds horn and string sections, plus a keyboardist, and rechristens the group I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On, a name that fairly summarizes the movie’s own clumsy tutelage from the school of rock pics. Never more than typical tween-pop, the band’s cloying tunes — alternately sung by Michalka and the charming Hudgens — do improve as the film goes on, enough to lend a hint of plausibility to the proceedings. Hudgens’ late-period turn at the mic is particularly well suited to a performance that builds in volume as Michalka’s recedes. Kudrow, if not hilarious, makes an authentic overprotective mom.
Lensed mostly in Austin, Texas, by “Juno” and “500 Days of Summer” cinematographer Eric Steelberg, Graff’s pic convincingly re-creates both suburban Jersey and, for a tender exchange between Will and Sa5m, the legendary and now-closed downtown Manhattan club CBGB. More believable still is the means by which the cheesy band wins its fame: Twittering from young fans, rather than raves from old-school judges, is what counts most, and Summit may well wish the same for “Bandslam.”