Directed by Todd Graff
Writer-director Todd Graff broke through with his indie teen musical Camp; Bandslam, which finds him directing former Disney employees Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka in a high school battle of the bands, seems like exactly the kind of studio project that washes away memories of a promising Sudancey talent. But get this: Graff's 2,000-screen teen movie is even better than his enjoyably scrappy debut.
It starts with the new kid in town, namely with Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), actually looking like a kid. Gawky, near-chinless, and so in love with music that he maintains a one-way correspondence with David Bowie, Will moves to suburban New Jersey and prepares for fresh cartoon hell. Instead, he meets girls, bonding with the monotone, withdrawn Sa5m (Hudgens) — "the five is silent" — while the more gregarious Charlotte (Michalka) recruits him and his music-nerd prowess to manage her new band. You'd be forgiven the suspicion that the movie wants to set up the classic false dichotomy between the hot girl the hero thinks he loves and the unassuming best friend he must discover he actually loves, but Graff has a strategy for sidestepping the issue entirely. He simply makes Will, Sa5m, and Charlotte all interesting, believable people with thoughts and feelings that never once have anything to do with prom.
Charlotte proves a prime Behind the Music candidate, already having split from her local-rock-star boyfriend and his band, Glory Dogs; Will adds members in a bid for aughts-style indie collective status, though that doesn't quite explain his mild ska fixation. The latter is so out of step with current music trends, indie or otherwise, that it feels wonderfully odd and genuine. The filmmakers clearly care about music, but they never reduce fandom to excess snark or showoffy name-dropping, and when the rechristened I Can't Go On, I'll Go On comes together, Graff actually lets them play full songs rather than rushing his young performers into montages. Hudgens not only has more quiet presence here than in the High School Musical filmed product line, but sings better, too — it's as if she's had Disney's remote-control device removed from her nasal cavity.
Bandslam gets a little melodramatic toward the end, and can't resist sprinkling a little teenage wish-fulfillment on top of the grounded stuff. But Graff's pragmatic sweetness shines through; ultimately, this is an adorable suburban cousin to last year's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, with no real villains and more relationship depth than any number of adult rom-coms.