If the late John Hughes had taught the generation who grew up on Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Home Alone anything beyond narcissism, then Todd Graff’s new film, Bandslam, would be getting sky-high praise. Instead, the barely hyped Bandslam must settle for simply being the best American movie this summer.
Working in Hughes’ spirit (combining adolescent rapport with sharp humor), Graff updates Hughes’ genre to the modern era where social acceptance equates to careerism. But Graff isn’t an Ayn Rand capitalist, his wonderful debut film Camp reveled in the spiritual aspirations of misfit teens pursuing the subculture of Broadway musicals as an outlet for their personal artistic—and significantly, sexual—affections. “I didn’t get the memo on how to fit in,” says Will (Gaelan Connell), Bandslam’s chinless, sharp-nosed, curly haired nerd who moves from Cincinnati to Lodi, N.J., where he is stuck in teen alienation. Only an amateur talent competition—the Bandslam—socializes him: Depressed sophomore Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens) and sunny senior Charlotte (Alyson Michalka) help Will organize a ragtag band named I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On (a Beckett quote).
The kids are smart (“Lunch today was like a Nuremberg rally produced by MTV”) but Graff is smarter about how screwed-up they are, and he’s tender about it. Oversensitive Sa5m frets, “Emotion is overrated,” and defensive Charlotte pouts, “I don’t do ‘Why?’” But Will types out his frustrations in unanswered emails to David Bowie (“Dear David Bowie, how do you tell Pinocchio he’ll never be a real boy?”). Here’s where the Graff/Hughes distinction comes clear: Hughes co-opted ’80s Brit Pop with good taste, but his Bowie quote that opened Breakfast Club (“And these children…They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”) pandered to the youth market; crowning Bowie precisely when he was being deposed by The Smiths was an elitist move. Graff’s too fond of outsiders for that.
In Bandslam’s queer sensibility, Graff dramatizes loneliness and tragedies that happen to individuals better than Hughes, whose surprising filmmaking confidence was also disturbingly slick. Graff wobbles his way through kids’ emotional fumblings, but he conveys their poignancy without milking it. When Will says, “Goodnight, Charlotte,” or a sexy Good Samaritan says, “I am so going to Heaven,” Graff’s ironies are open yet subtle, like Wes Anderson’s. No American youth film has explored pop culture this nicely since the thematically similar martial arts film Never Back Down and the hip-hop-entranced The Wackness.
A crowd-surfing scene and a re-created Bowie album cover brim with affection—rooted in Graff’s rapport with actors—all, as in Camp, are prodigious. Michalka has a Joan Blondell glow and Hudgens recovers from High School Musical 3, revealing archetypal hot-chick sizzle that outdoes Diane Lane in Streets of Fire.
The competition itself reworks the narrative magic of 42nd Street in a surprising way, while also commenting on the absurdity of our celebrity mania. A rival band, Ben Wheatley and the Glory Dogs, features a perfect Elvis type (Scott Porter) who is a long-jawed, one-man parody of the American Idol template, and the Bandslam MC (Bobby Bones) is so geeked-up and open-hearted you can’t help but grin. I can’t wait for Graff’s next film. John Hughes defined a niche, but Graff has the movie-musical gift of buoyancy.
Directed by Todd Graff
Runtime: 111 min.
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