August 20, 2009

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Bandslam (PG)
The kids overcome social barriers and different musical styles to put on a show in Bandslam, a totally adorable little movie about a young music nerd making his way in the world.

If this movie were a teenager, I would be ruffling its hair and calling it “lil’ camper” and it would be making a face and squirming at being called adorable. But I can’t help it — this movie is like High Fidelity if you replaced all the snark and musical snobbishness with earnestness.

Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) is, poor dear, a geek. Specifically, he’s a music geek. He gets picked on at his old school (we don’t quite know why — he’s taunted with calls of “Dewey”) and seems to only get solace from a savant-level study of rock and roll and from letters he writes to David Bowie. He is therefore delighted when his mom (Lisa Kudrow) tells him that they’re moving — new school, new kids!

Same me, Will grumps. He gloomily decides that his new school is almost exactly like his old school with two exciting differences — (1) nobody knows him and (2) everyone is obsessed with this thing called “Bandslam.” The reigning king of Bandslam (a contest between rock bands from various high schools) is a group called Glory Dogs, headed by, well, let’s just call him Villainous Jerk #1 (Scott Porter).

Turns out Villainous recently dumped a few band members from Glory Dogs and, along with his vixeny ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Aly Michalka), they’ve started their own band to go up against his at Bandslam. And, for reasons neither Will nor we completely understand, Charlotte takes a shine to Will and makes him their manager. Whatever instinct inspired this partnership across clique lines, it turns out to be a smart decision on Charlotte’s part because Will knows his musical stuff. And the deal’s not so bad for Will, who gets some pals out of it and some advice on how to approach Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), the cute but surly girl Will is paired up with for a class project.

Yes, Sa5m. The 5 is silent.

That bit of self-conscious hipness shouldn’t work but it surprisingly does. Miss High School Musical is believable as a darkly-clad nerd girl who affects a “whatever” poise to hide hurt, fear and embarrassment.

As ack-I’m-old as it is to see Lisa Kudrow play the mom of a teenager, she turns in a good performance as well. She’s appropriately normal — not the kind of all-mom-no-person cloth that movie moms are usually cut from. Even in her few scenes, she’s able to give her character a distinct personality and build a neat, complex relationship with Will.

The music geek who has trouble talking to girls shouldn’t feel like a fresh character either. But somehow Connell brings just enough newness to the role to make him feel fleshed out. He waxes on about ska, about the glory of CBGB, about how this 1980s band begat that 21st-century band. It should seem achingly false to have a kid who was born roughly the same year Madonna released “Lucky Star” get all misty over the Sex Pistols, but somehow Connell and the movie make it feel believable and organic.

It’s clear that someone equally geeky about music had a hand in this film — from the creation of the band that Will and Charlotte plan to make victorious at Bandslam to the mix of Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” “Femme Fatale” (Nico) and “What Light” (Wilco) on the soundtrack. Oh, and that kids-are-alright band? It’s called “I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On” — who’s the cutest little movie ever? B

Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild language. Directed by Todd Graff and written by Josh A. Cagan and Todd Graff, Bandslam is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Summit Entertainment.