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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
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Bandslam: High school musical
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A special little film.
A special little film.

From the beginning of time, or at least the roots of rock 'n' roll, outcast teens have found comfort and companionship in music when neither is to be had in their peer circle.

Which brings me to Bandslam's Will (Gaelan Connell), a loner and, in the eyes of his classmates, a loser, which is why his sympathetic single mom (Lisa Kudrow) moves them at the film's beginning from unforgiving Cleveland to a fresh start in New Jersey. At his new school, Will is still Will - a shy, music-obsessed kid unversed in social strategizing - but he is quickly latched onto by two very different girls: a blond-tressed former cheerleader named Charlotte (Alyson Michalka), who has burned all bridges with the A-list crowd, and Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), a dry wit smirking her way through the high school horrordrome. ("The five is silent," Sa5m deadpans, low and slow, due to a childhood stutter.)

Both girls pack some powerful pipes, which will come in handy for a citywide battle of the bands called Bandslam, the anticipation of which drives the film. Will becomes a sort of benign Svengali, putting together a band while also fumbling toward a romantic relationship with Sa5m.

Will courts her in his own way, which includes a blissful interlude where the two break into the seminal, now-shuttered Bowery club CBGB's. It's a setting that would seem to hold more sentimental freight for the adult filmmaker, Todd Graff, and his co-writer Josh A. Cagan, but then one remembers that in the age of the Internet, any teen can be a specialist in crumbling monuments to rock.

Bandslam plays like a spiritual companion to last year's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - goofier, flabbier and less artful, but possessing the same joie de vivre of youth reveling in rock. Hudgens and Michalka are fine, but they're top-billed in name alone: Bandslam belongs to Connell. He has the unruly fro and endearing shambling quality of a young Daniel Stern, and he ably brings to life that rarest of cinematic qualities: decency.

In the climactic battle of the bands, Will faces every adolescent's worst nightmare - an auditorium packed with chanting students, unified in mockery of him - and through his own cunning and good-heartedness turns it into a moment of triumph. It's an elating moment, and an uncommon one. Will's triumph doesn't come from taking down his classmates but by bringing them up to his own level, and it's perfectly in tune with this special little film's own commitment to - again, that unsexy but most fundamental quality - decency.

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