Directed by Todd Graff. Starring Gaelan Connell, Alyson Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Scott Porter, Ryan Donowho, Charlie Saxton, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Jo. (2009, PG, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
From the beginning of time, or at least the roots of rock & roll, outcast teens have found comfort and companionship in music where none is to be had in their peer circles. Bandslam takes that idea and literalizes it: The first lines of the film are, “Dear David Bowie,” in one of many e-mails 15-year-old Will Burton (Connell) will write to his rock god. Will is a loner and, in the eyes of his classmates, a loser, which is why his sympathetic single mom (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 (Michalka), who has burned all bridges with the A-list crowd, and Sa5m (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 (which was shot in Central Texas and features local bands). Will becomes a sort of benign Svengali, putting together the hiply titled band I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On – an apt summation of any misunderstood high schooler’s survival mantra – 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. It’s a setting that would seem to hold more sentimental freight for the adult filmmaker, Graff, and his co-writer Josh A. Cagan, but then one remembers that in the age of the Internet, any teen can be not only savvy but 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. Bandslam is also considerably tamer when it comes to its teen romancers; a couple of chaste pecks won’t turn off the preteen fans of Disney-anointed Hudgens and Michalka (or their parents). Both are fine – Hudgens, especially, shows spark in the more interesting role – but they’re top-billed in name alone: Bandslam belongs to Connell. He has the unruly 'fro and endearing shamblingness 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 prats, 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.