Will centers on a high school outcast and a popular girl who form an unlikely bond through their shared love of music. Assembling a like-minded crew of misfits, the friends form a rock group and perform in the battle of the bands competition at their school.Written by
This high school musical movie actually contains one of HSM's stars, Vanessa Hudgens, plus Lisa Kudrow as the single mother of the protag, Will Burton (Gaelen Connell), who is delighted when his mom finds a way to take them to live in a new place, Lodi, New Jersey. He was more then ready for a change. In one of the chatty emails to David Bowie that provide the narration, he calls his old high school "Guantanamo with lunch breaks." What happens at the new school? Will gets lucky. Real lucky. He gets paired off with Vanessa Hudgens in a class, and they become a couple. A former Alpha Female called Charlotte (junior prom queen, head cheerleader), played by Alyson Michalka, finds out Will has an encyclopedic musical knowledge and recruits him to meld her garage band into one that can beat the high school's reigning Glory Dogs and win the tri-state (NY, NY, CN) "bandslam." One obvious motive is that she wants to beat the Glory Dogs to trounce its lead singer, Ben Wheatly (Scott Porter), because he is her snotty former boyfriend. Aside from Ben, a generic model of testosterone overconfidence, Graff (mostly) steers clear of high school stereotypes.
This sets up a trajectory for the film that's like an older kids' version of Richard Linklater's 'School of Rock,' but Gaelen Connell is no Jack Black and the pathway to the big event isn't as cute -- or as climactic. That was one of Black's triumphs, but on the other hand Connell himself is way cuter than Jack Black, whose closest lookalike is the base guitarist, a Flea imitator who calls himself Bug (Charlie Saxton). Resembling young Tom Hanks or maybe John Cusack, with a weak chin, a sweet little smile, a mini Afro and a wrinkled brow, you can almost believe Connell's Will might actually be in the constant company of the school's hottest chicks. Not quite. He's not as articulate and soulful as Cusack, and not as edgey and dark as Christian Slater was in 'Heathers' or 'Pump Up the Volume.' But then Hudgens isn't the shiny, prefab girlfriend of Zac Efron this time. Au contraire. She gets to be the dark one. She calls herself Sa5m ("the 5 is silent"), wears dark clothes, and she reads all the time, even when Will's trying to kiss her.
When you think of Eighties youth classics like those two Slater was in, Bandslam looks generic. We'll just never relive that great Eighties youth movie moment or see the likes of the late, great John Hughes again. But when you compare Bandslam to 'High School Musical,' you realize this is not the kind of movie that you pan. It deserves encouragement. The screenplay by Graff and Josh A. Cagan is packed with inessential cuteness and never takes its dark moments seriously enough -- even though it pushes them too hard. The music Will leads the band into is bland -- and loud. There's none of the joy in rock frenzy that Jack Black comically evokes. Maybe Wil's expertise -- his celebratory (and still pretty touching) visit to the ruins of CGMG, where punk began -- may seem more a reflection of the 50ish director than a teenager. But none of that matters enough to maul this movie, unless you're desperate to show how musically hip you are. The cast is just too appealing and the action is just too much fun to write them off.
When Will reshapes the band by adding brass and an Asian girl classical keyboardist (Lisa Chung) and an elphin-spouting nerdy girl cellist (Elvy Yost) and a boy drummer called Basher (Ryan Donowho) whose majors are machine shop and anger management, if feels like he's bringing something to life (however silly the music), and Jack Black was just a puppet master. It's also good that Kudrow really seems like a single mom trying not to get too much in the way of her son's new life but still protective and sometimes forgetting herself and making him a friend, or as he says "doing that thing of talking to me like I'm Oprah." Sometimes Todd Graff's perky cuteness seems pretty real. Connell has been compared to a Michael Cera "without the sweetness." "Thank you Shia LaBeouf and Michael Cera" is something Connell has actually said, "for paving the way for someone like me to be the leading guy in a movie." But Connell is Connell. LaBeouf would be a lead weight here, and Cera would swamp the movie with his indie quirkiness. The best thing about Connell is he's not a scene stealer: he's a catalyst. He makes this movie built around him an ensemble picture, and everybody looks pretty good.
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