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(2003) *** Pg-13
110 min. distributer. Director: Steve Rash. Cast: Rachel Veltri, Lauren Mayhew, Arielle Kebbel, Richard Keith, Kathleen LaGue.

Camp is a bit ragged around the edges, sometimes as awkward as its emotionally needy characters, and generally scattershot and shticky. But it's just so cute. Inspired by his experiences as a camper and counselor at Stagedoor Manor--the real-life theater immersion summer camp whose famous alumni include Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, and Mandy Moore--first-time director Todd Graff wrote this heartfelt indie comedy-drama, which debuted at Sundance 2003.

A fresh cast of unknowns plays the campers and the staff. The story pivots around Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a good-looking teen who causes a stir amongst the boys and girls when he arrives at Camp Ovation. Heterosexual males are said to be rare at Camp Ovation, so Vlad eagerly soaks up the attention, bedding the girls and flirting with the boys. Principally, Vlad romances the mousy Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) and flirtateously befriends the cross-dressing Michael (Robin De Jesus).

Meanwhile, boot-camp theater productions spring up, drilled by a faculty including the alcoholic, one-hit-wonder has-been Bert Hanley (Don Dixon). Hanley's beloved musical The Children's Crusade haunts him: he can't manage a follow-up, so he bitterly takes it out on the formerly happy campers with tough talk about the so-called life of an actor.

All of this allows character-infused, musical-theater production numbers from real shows, like the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach-Hal David collaboration Promises, Promises and Stephen Sondheim's Follies and Company, as well as fictional ones like The Children's Crusade. Graff also got himself an original score by Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). The energetic, colorful numbers--sung by the talented young cast--will undoubtedly inspire applause, as absurd as that may be in a movie theater.

Graff is better known for playing seedy roles in movies like The Abyss, Five Corners, and Strange Days. His screenplays haven't exactly set the world on fire (The Beautician and the Beast, anyone?), but Camp knowingly addresses some real issues about young people bitten by the acting bug, particularly why they need to act and why perhaps they shouldn't.

The humor is often broad or in-jokey and usually low-key: don't expect guffaws. Graff briefly observes the director whose ego supercedes education, the theater geek who doesn't know which way is up on a basketball, and backbiting jealousy between ambitious starlets (sadly, Graff offers no real feminine friendship to counterpoint the latter). Graff's teenage version of Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch," about aging socialite women who nurse gin, skillfully skewers the occasional incongruity of high school theater, as well as allowing an All About Eve-esque gag that's among the film's funniest. There's sharper satire to be found in this material, but thankfully Graff isn't interested in maligning high school theatre, just acknowledging and embracing the warts-and-all freakery-geekery for what it is: forlorn but potentially magical.

Theater fans will gladly eat up the genially bitchy Camp (and gawk at its jaw-dropping cameo). Others--due to the opportune TV revival of musical acts on American Idol and the movie's spiritual cousin Boston Public--will enjoy the songs. Particularly note-able are the soulful opening and closing numbers ("How Shall I See You Through My Tears?" from The Gospel at Colonus and Todd Rundgren's "Want of a Nail"), which aren't, but could be, outtakes from Rent. I wish Graff didn't flit around his camp with the attention span of a mosquito, but Camp is a good way to while away a couple of summer hours.

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