By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
If in high school you weren't part of a clique for whom Stephen Sondheim's cult-clout rivaled Aleister Crowley's, the kids in the indie musical Camp might not seem realistic. But actor-screenwriter Todd Graff's directorial debut coming-of-ager about thespian-club kids at a summer arts camp is an attempt to capture a niche teen experience beyond the catch-all depictions in lip-glossy romps and meth'd-up urchin flicks. "I don't recognize anybody in those movies from my adolescence," says Graff, "and I didn't recognize my niece or my friends' kids." Graff focuses on gay and straight outcasts who, like Camp's drag queen Michael, deal with school-year awkwardness by copping adult sophistication. "The camp," he says, "is an atmosphere where they can have ridiculous summer crushes and get close to the mark of being a real kid, instead of aping adult gay male banter and behavior."
Graff cast many non-professionals, and musician-producer Don Dixon as a washed-up tunesmith character who provides a skewed reality check. "I didn't want an actor," says Graff. "I wanted a musician, and I knew that the character's songs sounded like the jangly Hoboken, Athens kind of thing." Graff explains the film's progression from show tunes to rock, "We start off with the 'Turkey Lurkey's and the Companys; by the end, it's Victoria Williams and Todd Rundgren." Dixon's character, ripped from 1975's Smile, fulfilled Graff's need for someone to, he says, "articulate what a lot of people have to be thinking while watching the kids: 'You're freaks' or 'Almost nobody makes it.' " Dixon played that role off-camera as well. "He was the one at 4:30 in the morning, chain smoking, with a Jack and Coke, with like nine kids around him and an acoustic guitar. They'd start singing and he'd be like 'Aaarrrghthose show tunes! Get that shit out of your voice. Don't sell, just sing!' "
In exploring the kids' situations, Graff seems as interested in his girls as his boys. Two plotlines consider the plight of straight girls in a milieu where most boys are gay. Says Graff, "It's like, 'We'll be fabulous with you, but nobody's going to be sexually attracted to you." He likens Dee, a beautiful singer who sleeps with the experimenting Michael, as "Marilyn from the Munsters." Straight hunk Vlad longs for respect, and as Graff explains, strikes a "tacit deal" with a summer girlfriend, "She's saying to him, if you will go out with me, I will confer upon you intelligence, humor, substance."
Now living in New York, Graff admits that in Hollywood he, like his character Vlad, struggled with being a pleaser: "That's me in spades." But, he adds, "I'm very anxious not to be that guy anymore." To keep any "pretentious director-guy" egoism in check, Graff plans on doing Camp's DVD commentary with pal Paul Thomas Anderson. "He's going to bust me on my shit through the whole thing, like, 'Okayyyy so I'm watching the opening number from Hair' " (which Graff admits nicking for his film's first scene). "But it's OK," he says. "I can't wait."
Ed Park's review of Camp
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