Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Released Tuesday on DVD: "Bandslam"

Grade: B

It's no minor compliment that Bandslam gets a stamp of approval from David Bowie, who plays a small but pivotal role. Given that it's aimed at High School Musical fans, Todd Graff's romantic dramedy is considerably cooler than it needs to be. All it really needs, in fact, is the presence of HSM queen Vanessa Hudgens, whose very name is enough to pull tweens into video stores. But as it turns out, the movie's biggest draw is also its biggest drawback.

In attempting to stretch her image, Hudgens has been totally miscast as Sa5m (the "5" is silent), an alienated loner who always sits in the back row at her New Jersey high school.

Sa5m finds a potential soul mate in the music-obsessed Will (Gaelan Connell), a geeky transfer student. Will and his mom (Lisa Kudrow) are hoping for a new start, after several miserable years in Ohio. And sure enough, his life turns around almost instantly. Not only is Sa5m interested, but ultra-popular senior Charlotte (Aly Michalka) wants him to manager her band.

The local battle of the bands is a big deal, and Charlotte plans on winning. But that puts Will in a tough, if enviable, position: can he be equally devoted to both girls, in different ways?

Yes, the plot is totally predictable. But the smart script consistently tweaks the formula, allowing director/cowriter Graff to pull off the near-impossible: making a movie that neither sells our nor talks down to teens. He makes room for chaperones, too, with an atypically wise parent (Kudrow is great) and a soundtrack that includes not only Hudgens and Michalka but Glen Campbell, Nick Drake and Wilco.

Best of all, though, is newcomer Connell, the kind of charismatic kid who would have been cast in Freaks and Geeks 10 years ago. It's just a shame he's paired with Hudgens, who doesn't understand her outcast character at all.

Then again, there's really no reason to complain here. After all, have you tried finding a PG-rated DVD that's appropriately innocent without feeling like a Disney-fied fairy tale? As Will's idol Bowie might say, it ain't easy.

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