Upon first glance, it would be easy to brush off Bandslam as another example of the declining quality of inexplicably popular tween franchises. It's too easy to laugh at Twilight fans who cried after seeing the New Moon trailer. It's bewildering the amount of people who see High School Musical as a shining example of the musical genre, and the trailers for this film do little to separate itself apart from that franchise (even going so far as to highlight HSM star, Vanessa Hudgens, who actually plays a smaller role in this picture than you might think). Yes, it seemed like Bandslam was another routinely plotted, dumbed down kids film with little heart or soul. Well, it wasn't. Many will call Bandslam "good for what it is," but it's so much more than that and deserves an audience. Surprisingly, this is an excellent movie.
The film follows Will Burton, played by Gaelan Connell, an indie rock music lover living in Cincinnati, miserable and friendless in a world populated by cliques, none of which he fits into. He dreams of getting out of there and starting anew somewhere else. Luckily, his wish is about to come true because his mother, wonderfully played by Lisa Kudrow, has landed a job in Lodi, New Jersey, so they pack their stuff and move away. Once he arrives at his new school, he meets two beautiful girls whom he begins to establish friendships with, Charlotte Banks, played by Alyson Michalka, and Sa5m (the 5 is silent), played by Vanessa Hudgens. With a kindling romance sparking between Will and Sam (I refuse to type the 5 again out of principle), Charlotte employs Will as her band manager, taking heed to his knowledge of music. In a mere few weeks, the biggest event of the year, Bandslam, is kicking off, and she hopes he will help her band win.
There are a few things separating Bandslam from the cavalcade of other similar films released in recent memory. Though it is a tween film and each character in it possesses their own problems, it is not bogged down by excessive teenage angst. Instead of wallowing in their own self pity, these characters find things that make them happy even when everything around them tries to bring them down. Will, for instance, has had a terrible past, disconsolate and alone in a school full of nasty kids who gave him the nickname "Dewey" (a reference to his father's DWI that plays a major role in his character development), but he has a strong passion for music, looking past the hardships of life and seeing the joys. Every prominent character in the movie is similarly explored. They all have problems and they all work to overcome them.
But these problems aren't simply throwaway situations that every teenager goes through, like the usual phases in life where they are more worried about their hair and how they are perceived by the opposite sex than anything relevant. No, Bandslam deals with real issues: growing up, forming lasting relationships, and even the death of a parent. It doesn't romanticize high school like so many other teen-targeted films, but portrays a realistic one, showing the hurdles they may have to face when they get there.
Another distinction one can make from other teen movies is the positive portrayal of adult figures. Unlike other films where the parent is blindly unaware of what his or her child is doing (if they even exist at all), Will's mother plays a major role in his life, taking interest in his activities, even attending a couple of Will's band practices, offering her encouragement and helping in any way she can. She isn't an afterthought in Will's life. She is everything in it, at least until he finds some friends and begins to manage this band, though she never disappears. It's refreshing to see a loving parent who isn't a dunderheaded idiot and a mother/son relationship that becomes one of the strongest assets to the film. In other similar outings, a "kid power" theme dominates, but this movie's theme is about love and kindness in any relationship, be it family or friends, and is a great message for children to hear.
Bandslam is authentic through and through, boasting an intelligent script and superb performances. Kudrow and Connell in particular are fantastic, ably delivering quick, witty one-liners, but staying keen enough to know when to subdue themselves during dramatic turns. Though still exaggerated a bit, this high school felt authentic and the film is the first in some time that reminded me of my high school experience, the good and the bad. Despite the occasional hiccup in believability, Bandslam turned out to be a wonderful surprise that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Bandslam receives 4/5