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Hey kids, let’s put on a show: Camp.

Summer of Love
By Shawn Stone

Directed by Todd Graff

This musical about a bunch of starstruck teenagers at theater camp radiates energy. The kids sing, dance and let their hormones run free. In fact, it is this unbridled enthusiasm that makes Camp such good fun.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh god, not Fame again.” Well, yes and no. Like Fame, Camp is about theater geeks who can’t fit in with the “regular” kids. However, Camp doesn’t try to be profound. There’s no attempt to weave any kind of social fabric into the story: In the world of summer camp, these hothouse flowers bloom in isolation. The film is refreshingly free of any statement bigger than “Be yourself.”

The characters are introduced quickly and painlessly. There’s Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), the big girl whose weight-obsessed parents have had her jaw wired shut; Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), who couldn’t get a prom date because she’s a show-tunes geek; Jill (Alana Allen), the obligatory blonde bitch; Michael (Robin De Jesus), who couldn’t get into his prom because he wore a dress; and Vlad (Daniel Letterle), the only straight boy in camp.

They love, they laugh, they cry. They put on a new play every two weeks, from Neil Simon to Samuel Beckett. They put up with the drunken sarcasm of washed-up writer-director Bert Hanley (alt-music semi-legend Don Dixon), who makes time to be insulting between swigs of bourbon.

The best of the film’s humor is rooted in character, and quite inspired. For example, when the laconic Bert tells the diminutive Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) that she’s “one scary little girl” and gives her some dismissive advice, she more than lives up to the description, and takes his offhand instructions literally. Scorned by the object of her affection, Fritzi exacts a nasty revenge—and then reveals an astonishing talent.

Camp is upfront about being a musical, opening with a production number (“How Shall I See You Through My Tears”) that is better directed and more compelling than anything in Chicago. It helps that everyone in the film, though young, is a real singer, too—Sasha Allen, who plays Ellen’s roommate Dee and steals the opening song, was singing on Broadway at age 14. It’s noteworthy, too, that first-time writer-director Todd Graff has the rare ability to make stagebound musical numbers interesting; the fact that the entire film was shot in just 23 days only adds luster to his achievement.

The production numbers are, however, introduced in a helter-skelter manner. This keeps the film moving, and serves to distract from the fact that the drama doesn’t amount to much more than which unhappy camper (Ellen, Michael or Dee) wins straight white boy Vlad. For a movie that more or less posits that musical theater has a gay sensibility (and the majority of male campers are obviously not straight), it’s painfully conventional to have the principal gay character (Michael) pine his summer away over the straight guy. While a pretty good joke is made of Vlad’s outrageous narcissism, it doesn’t make the love quadrangle any less banal, or Vlad any less annoying.

It’s better to enjoy the film for its strength: the performers.

Nonsense and Sensibility

I Capture the Castle
Directed by Tim Fywell

I Capture the Castle is adapted from the 1940s novel by Dodie Smith (who later wrote 101 Dalmatians), a “modern classic” revered for its Jane Austen-styled romantic imbroglios. Yet Austen herself undoubtedly would turn up her nose at Tim Fywell’s maladapted screen version, an often-appalling misfire with a fatal lack of social satire and an unappealing heroine dominating every scene. Despite what are noticeably good intentions, I Capture mashes too many storylines into blubbering melodrama.

Set in 1930s England, the film centers on Cassandra Mortmain (Romola Garai), 17-going-on-18 and a budding writer. Cassandra narrates her coming-of-romantic-age story from her diary entries, a device that only infrequently makes a compelling transition from page to screen, and does not do so here. What Cassandra says she thinks and what she does are often two different things—and the story is overloaded with enough murky motivations as it is. Cassandra’s father (Bill Nighy) is suffering from writer’s block following his brilliant debut 12 years previous. Shortly after that success, he moved the family into a rural castle; a decade later, the castle is falling to ruin and so is he. His royalty checks have petered out to zero, and the situation is desperate. Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz (Tara FitzGerald), once a famous painter’s muse, is seemingly going bonkers from isolation, while Cassandra’s older sister, Rose (Rose Byrne), a true English beauty, yearns futilely for a social life, or at the very least, a new dress or a decent meal.

Hope arrives in the form of two wealthy swains from America, Simon (Henry Thomas) and Neil Cotton (Marc Blucas). With the aid of Cassandra’s meddling, a romance is struck up between Simon and Rose, resulting in an easement of the family’s poverty. Then Cassandra discovers that she, too, is in love with Simon, crushing the hopes of the Mortmains’ faithful servant, the handsome Stephen (Joe Sowerbutts).

Although the film strives mightily to be sensitive, offbeat and charming, there’s nothing at all pleasant about the condescending ignorance with which the Cottons view the eccentric but genteel Mortmains. Mrs. Cotton (Sinead Cusack) is an insulting harridan whose manners are so offensive that to call her nouveau riche would be a compliment. Yet the director doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss with the Mortmains’ fawning tolerance of the intolerable Cottons, nor is there any explanation for why Cassandra would fall for the decidedly ungallant and unattractive Simon—especially with the gentlemanly Stephen pining in the background. Although we can feel for Rose, who must marry for money, the manipulative Cassandra may leave viewers cold. Making the character even less sympathetic is the one-note petulance of Garai (who was better cast as the self-absorbed aristocrat in the recent BBC miniseries of Daniel Deronda).

Oddly enough, a previous collaboration between Fywell and screenwriter Heidi Thomas resulted in the BBC’s excellent 2000 rendition of Madame Bovary. But something here just didn’t gel, and as if to compensate for Cassandra’s pedestrian dilemmas, Fywell torques the climactic revelations from her father with screechy intensity. But at least the set design is lovely, especially the grown-wild grounds and shabby-chic interiors of the castle. Captured on film with diffused artistry, it’s is the best thing in the movie.

—Ann Morrow

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