Call it Revenge of the Theater Nerds. Todd Graff's Camp, which harks back to the Mickey-and-Judy hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show musicals of the '30s, takes the old story about the ugly duckling turning into a swan and milks it for all it's worth. The various boys and girls who show up at Camp Ovation for several weeks of rehearsals and performances are capable of singing and/or dancing their hearts out. But each of them has a so-called flaw. One's a little overweight. One's a lot overweight. (Her dad thinks so, anyway.) One went to prom in drag and got his ass kicked. And one of the guys ' we're talking theater camp, remember ' is straight, a revelation that sends ripples of tension through both the men's and women's dormitories. Camp Ovation's delicate balance between fag and hag is about to be altered.
And that's not the only transformation. Through the redeeming power of Broadway show tunes, each of our freaks and geeks becomes a star, if only for one brief, shining off-off-off-Broadway moment. Like an out-of-town tryout for Fame, Camp has some kinks to work out; its dramatic interludes are sappy, its comic interludes lack snap. But when the spotlight comes on ' when our junior-division American Idols start belting to the rafters ' then all that glitter turns to gold. Writer-director Graff, who attended Stagedoor Manor, the real-life camp that Camp's based on, thinks only in terms of Broadway clichÃs, which gives the movie a synthetic, canned feel. But, like any self-respecting theater-camp alumnus, he knows how to work with raw talent on a shoestring budget.
The shoestring budget may be a blessing; Camp isn't buried in glitz, like Moulin Rouge and Chicago were. And the raw talent is half the reason we're here ' to see the leaders of tomorrow in the business called show. Some of the talent's too raw, although it falls safely within the story's amateur-night parameters. The rest are thoroughly pro, even if one can imagine Simon Cowell sinking his teeth into their backsides. Ironically, Camp doesn't seem very...camp. Like Fame, it wears its heart on its sleeve, despite paying lip service to sarcasm. Politically, we've come a long way from the gay guy in Fame, who couldn't sing his way out of the closet. Here, all the guys are out and about, even the straight guy, who'll do whatever it takes to hear the sound of applause. Like everybody else in this heart-tugging movie, he just wants to be loved.