Bandslam ***1/2 (out of ****)

Director: Todd Graff
Writers: Josh A. Cagan and Todd Graff
Cast: Gaelan Connell, Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Lisa Kudrow
Rating: PG (some thematic elements and mild language)
Running Time: 111 min
Release Date: 8/14/09

I believe most viewers will find Bandslam to be a pleasant surprise. The plot centers around a regional music competition for high school rock bands. That is rock bands composed of high school kids. This could well be the recipe for a real sinker of a film but director Todd Graff has instead produced a touching and very entertaining one instead.

We start with Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) who lives with his mother Karen (Lisa Kudrow) in Cincinnati. To say that he doesn’t enjoy school is an understatement. It seems that he is picked on by all the jocks, etc. They call him Dooie for some unspecified reason will play a role in the final act of the film. His main obsession is writing a daily e-mail to David Bowie to which he never gets a reply. Then one day his mother gets a new job in New Jersey. I know that doesn’t seem great but stay with me a little longer.

Will is barely in his new school when he learns of Bandslam and meets two girls. The first is an introvert who calls herself Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens) who explains that Bandslam is as big in James Madison High as football is in Texas high schools. The winner gets record deal which ups the interest for the non-college bound with musical talent. By the way the “5” is silent and don’t worry she is seeing a therapist. The second is Charlotte (Aly Michalka), a very attractive blonde, who drafts him into an after school daycare project.

After finding out about his amazing knowledge of things musical (at least post-Beatles), she invites him to a practice session with her three-piece group known as the Glory Dogs. Charlotte sings and plays guitar for the group. Charlotte asks Will to critique their efforts. Will immediately steps into this role giving constructive advice which Charlotte accepts and soon makes Will their manager.

One obvious omission in the Glory Dogs lineup is the lack of a drummer. Will recruits a very antisocial drummer (Ryan Donowho) into group along with a horn section, a classical pianist, and a cello player too. Soon Will has completely changed the sound of Glory Dogs. Next he changes the name of the group to I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On when he learns that there is another band form the same school named Ben Wheatly and the Glory Dogs. Ben was Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend from her days as head cheerleader.

Meanwhile in school, Will has been paired with Sa5m in his human studies class project. While it was clearly sexual attraction that made Will putty in Charlotte’s hands to do her bidding. She soon made it clear to him that he had no chance with her. So Sa5m becomes Will’s romantic interest. Naturally there is tension generated by Charlotte’s demands on Will’s time with the band. One also detects references to some prior bad experiences between the two girls.

Yet all three of these characters have some big secrets which will prove decisive in the final act. This action is triggered in part by Ben Wheatly’s (Scott Porter), Charlotte former boyfriend, attempts to win her back and his mistaken impression that there is something romantic going on between Charlotte and Will. A jealous Ben researches Will’s past and discovers his secret, then tragedy strikes Charlotte’s family, and Sa5m comes out of her shell in time the big band competition.

Bandslam is an intelligent firm and sensitive film that is well worth seeing. Todd Graff’s work is similar in style and depth to the films of the late John Hughes in exploring the lives of teenagers. Don’t let the poor promotion deter you from seeing it!

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