"Hit it hard, like you're killing something," a counselor tells one of the drummers in Girls Rock!, Shane King and Arne Johnson's thrashing documentary about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore. There's always been an implied "No Girls Allowed" sign on the treehouse wall of rock music, such luminaries as Grace Slick, Patti Smith and Courtney Love notwithstanding. But that's not the only reason the camp's founders - members of the female-empowerment activist group riot grrrl - decided to set aside five days every summer to show females between the ages of 8 and 18 how to rock on. They wanted to help these girls find their voices, both literally and figuratively. And all I can say is, bring earplugs.
You'll mostly need them when Palace, a 7-year-old with vocal cords made of titanium, lets loose with one of her screams. An adorable tyke who becomes a terror as the week rolls on, Palace might seem to undermine the sisterhood-is-powerful vibe, but that's a small price to pay for what pop psychologist Mary Pipher, in her bestselling book about today's girls, called Reviving Ophelia. Teach girls how to rock, and some of them are going to strut around like rock stars. Palace does manage to rein herself in as the final-night showcase approaches, and you realize that the movie's as much about how girls treat each other as it is about how they can play guitar. Of course, it's hard to like each other if they don't like themselves.
"I just accept that I hate myself," says Laura, a 15-year-old Korean American adoptee who always has a smile on her face, no matter what's passing by her lips. She does seem a little too generous with the hugs, as if she's trying to reassure herself that other people like her. But Laura is also a true rocker who believes in the power of music to lift you up and set you free. Her conversion from self-loathing to self-love is one of the film's highlights, not to mention one of the camp's triumphs. And so is the fact that Misty, a 17-year-old veteran of foster and group homes who's also spent some time in a lockdown treatment center, makes it all the way through without raising the holy hell she keeps saying she's capable of raising, if need be.
That leaves 8-year-old Amelia, a punk-rock natural whose songs tend to be about her dog, Pippi. Amelia is one of those relentlessly creative kids who can drive a parent nuts, and it's hard to believe she'd ever bury that creativity under a desperate need to fit in. But statistics don't lie, and Girls Rock!, using "issue-driven animation," delivers one factoid after another, each more depressing than the one before. (#1 Wish of Teenage Girls: To Lose Weight.) Thus the need for a School of Rock, where, instead of being forbidden to scream, you're encouraged to scream. Rock has always been a form of scream therapy, but girls are still taught to sit quietly, speak when spoken to. No wonder, then, that Palace, once she starts, can't seem to stop.