First-time director Todd Graff intimately knows the kids of Camp (2003). The recognizable character actor (The Abyss, Strange Days, Death to Smoochy) was, back in the halcyon days of his drama-geek youth, one of them his ownself. The film's Camp Ovation is a loving tribute to the real-life Stagedoor Manor, the performing-arts summer camp that Graff attended as a kid and, later, worked at as a counselor and the motley assortment of queeny teens, chubby fag-hags, and adolescent divas who live for the few precious months when they're no longer freaks is both well-drawn and respectfully rendered. Perhaps too respectfully although humor abounds in Camp, from the "color-blind" casting of two black brothers in "Fiddler on the Roof" to a visiting Stephen Sondheim being swarmed by young fans like a rock star, Graff's refusal to make fun means that his film lacks the teeth that would have transformed it from merely good to brilliant. The film's central story concerns Michael (Robin De Jesus), an unashamedly gay teen who comes to camp after receiving a beating for attending his prom in drag. His closest buds are awkward, ugly duckling Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) and a newly arrived straight boy, Vlad (David Letterle), who uses his flirty, boy-band good looks and status as the camp's only straight boy with sociopathic abandon. Meanwhile, Vlad's hero, a washed-up boozehound stereotype of a Southern playwright (Don Dixon), cuts the kids down to size but, naturally, learns a lesson about his own talents from these scrappy kids, and the camp's diva (Alana Allen) plays out an All About Eve scenario with her mousy sidekick (Anna Kendrick). Of course, there's also the poor downtrodden fat girl (Tiffany Taylor) who gets pushed out on stage at the last minute for the Big Closing Number, which, even though she hasn't rehearsed it because her jaws were wired shut all summer, she finesses with Whitney Houston abandon, thus winning over her jerkwad father. If all of this sounds very "ABC Afterschool Special"
well, unfortunately it is. Writer/director Graff, whose last screenplay was the cringe-worthy Fran Drescher flick The Beautician and the Beast, sets up his characters like bowling pins and then carefully knocks them all back down, one by one, without a single surprise to be had. While Camp certainly isn't an unpleasant movie, with a talented, enthusiastic cast and terrific original songs by Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask, it's just too comfortable. Had Graff dared to take a more satiric tone in the manner of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) or Michael Ritchie (Smile) or even better, had just gone over to dark comedy, as with Wes Anderson's Rushmore the film would have ultimately been much more satisfying. But Graff's desire to avoid infusing Camp with more, well, camp, makes for a light, breezy but insubstantial movie. MGM's disc offers the film in bright, spotless anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with crisp, rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English, with English or Spanish subtitles). Extras include a very good "Making of Camp" featurette, following the process of creating the film from the auditions through rehearsals, location shooting at Stagedoor Manor, and the film's triumphant premiere at Sundance; a live cast performance from the last night of the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival; and a very good selection of deleted and extended scenes a few of which should have been included in the film, since they gave context to the final versions and one sequence, with the kids attempting to play softball, which is far more hilarious than anything in the finished picture. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.