Review Date: 2-5-10
Release Date: 7-25-03
Runtime: 114 min.
Costume Designer: Dawn Weisberg
America seems to have renewed its love affair with the musical comedy genre. The success of TV’s Glee seems to make the point all by itself. It is with this love in mind that I bring you CAMP, a 2003 film that debuted at Sundance, and then fell largely under the radar. Honestly, I think it was ahead of its time. If you like Glee, you will love Camp.
The story is arranged around musical/performance numbers, and these kids can really sing and dance. It’s not a musical in the traditional sense that a song begins out of nowhere and replaces dialog. Rather, the storyline in this film is arranged around the music and performance numbers.
Camp Overture is a summer arts program for youth. The film was loosely based on director Todd Graff’s experience at Stagedoor Manor, one of the most famous summer camps in the world for young performers aged ten to eighteen. The film opens with vignettes/flashbacks of our three leads. The film segues to parents dropping their children off at camp, and thus we meet our cast of misfits. What theater kid isn’t a bit of a misfit, really?
First we meet Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a jockishly attractive young man, talking to himself in the mirror. Then we meet Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), unable to get a date to her prom, then Michael (Robin de Jesus), who arrives at prom in drag, dateless, and beaten to a pulp in the end. There’s Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), a girl whose jaw is wired shut for the summer (her dad thinks she’s too fat). Then there’s Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), a small, frumpy girl who serves as willing slave to the glamorous alpha female Jill (Alana Allen). The characters and archetypes are clearly defined, and the framework is set for the rest of the film.
Upon arrival, Vlad causes a stir as the mysterious “straight guy” in a sea of young gay men. It is clear that handsome Vlad is in a target-rich environment without much competition. Jill tries to seduce him and fails. He starts to hang out, pay attention to, and kiss Ellen, only to be sidelined along the way by various distractions. He is a young man after all, trying to figure it all out.
Michael’s storyline centers on his transgender tendency, and the effect it has had on his relationship with his parents. Lonely and wanting attention from Vlad, he sleeps with Dee (Sasha Allen), but it leaves him feeling empty.
Fritzi serves Jill dutifully until the day Jill tells her to get lost, to pretend like they never met. This sets Fritzi off on a vengeful warpath. Meanwhile, Jenna struggles through the summer’s performances with her jaw wired shut, only to be insulted by her father before the final performance, when he tells her that, despite the jaw-wiring, she is still fat. In the final performance, Jenna’s jaws are cut loose so she can sing, and she gives her dad a good what-for. He gets his comeuppance in the form of Here’s Where I Stand, a beautiful, heartfelt song by Michael Gore and Lynn Ahrens.
As far as the costumes go, the beauty of this film lies in the performances. The kids are shown in the costume shop, sewing their own costumes. I LOVE THIS! It gives the costume designer free reign to come up with all kinds of campy (forgive the pun), cliché, and out-there costumes.
Take a look at the costumes here for the number Turkey Lurkey Time from Promises, Promises. It’s supposed to be set in the 1960s, but these costumes are PERFECT from the perspective that these kids made them – it’s an interpretation of the 1960s look, but with a homemade, 2000s twist. Love it.
In this scene – a rehearsal for Dreamgirls’ power ballad And I am Telling You, Ellen (as Effie) sings her heart out to Petie (Kahiry Best) who, at seven years old, is a ridiculous bit of casting for Curtis Taylor. It’s really hilarious. And look at his nice blue 1970s-inspired suit. Awesome.
One of the best costume moments, in my opinion, was when Fritzi poisons Jill and takes her place on stage singing Sondheim’s The Ladies Who Lunch. Jill starts the song, and a few bars in, turns her back to discreetly vomit. She continues singing, vomits again, and is unceremoniously pushed offstage by Fritzi.
Fritzi, seething and venomous, takes over the song and slays it. Funny thing is, she’s dressed in the exact same dress, wig, jewelry and shoes as Jill. In this manner, we see the depth of Fritzi’s calculation. This was her plan all along, and her COSTUME gives it away.
There is a nice outdoor Shakespeare moment with Romeo and Juliet. Here is Ellen with the intro, dressed in a kind of suggestion of period costume. I love that it is nonspecific and simple – this is what theater students would create and sew for themselves. It was really nicely done.
Here, Michael (as Romeo) enters the stage, and sees that his parents have blown him off; they have skipped his performance. With her jaw wired shut, Jenna can barely deliver her lines. It’s sad, it’s funny, and the costumes are simple enough to not distract the viewer from the emotional import of the scene.
Later in the film, it’s Michael’s birthday. In a show of solidarity, his friends and camp-mates throw him a party, a drag birthday party.
Everyone gets into it, including the ridiculously cute Petie. He would give Madea a run for her money. Look at the thoughtful details: sweater catch, earrings, and the jewelry and nails on his brother (on the left side of the frame). These details add punch to the costumes and help them to feel more realistic and thought-out.
The end of the film is the big benefit performance night. Here, Jenna sings her song, Petie tap dances, and the big finale number features Michael in all of his drag glory.
There are some truly funny moments in this film – “Eyes! Eyes! Nostrils! Silent Scream!!!” – and there are a just a few moments that miss the mark. However, this film is so vibrant, so inspired, those few moments of missing the mark do not detract in any way from this film’s charm.
It’s delightful to see a very young Anna Kendrick belting her guts out (she is a Broadway baby, as it turns out). In fact, it is inspirational to see and hear all of these kids perform. Seven years out, most of them are still performing in one way or another. They followed their dreams. Camp is a poignant, touching reminder of the genesis of those dreams. It’s a sweet film, and I highly recommend it. Good job and congrats to Dawn Weisberg and her crew!