It's the summer vacation and a group of aspiring actors, actresses and singers are all spending their time at Camp Ovation to study and perform. Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is the new boy, and when he arrives to move into his room, his roommates are surprised to realise that he is not gay. Immediately two students develop a crush on him: Michael (Robin de Jesus), who wore a dress to his high school prom and was beaten up for his trouble, and Ellen (Joanne Chilcoat), who had to have her brother take her to the prom because she can't get a boyfriend. After auditions are held, the students are assigned shows to participate in, and Michael and Ellen are cast in the intense, three actor play Midnight Sun, which they have bother relating to, when everyone else gets to sing in musicals.
Written by the director Todd Graff, this is not the film to watch if you have an aversion to stage school kids or stories that put their characters through the wringer all in the name of the fabulous side of showbusiness. In an ensemble cast, all aspects of embracing the glittery lifestyle are examined, and the film constantly threatens to turn into one of the cheesiest teen movies of all time with its painful sincerity. However, just when you think things can't get any more corny, Camp will turn bitchy, and then seriously nasty, which may give it an edge, but also makes for a variable experience. How seriously are we supposed to take the scenes of apparently true emotion when the script is sending up the conventions elsewhere?
The film is not simply the love triangle between Michael, Vlad and Ellen, nope, there are other subplots working away as well. One of the camp tutors is Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a washed up drunkard who had a big hit many years ago and now is reduced to teaching the brats. Will they make him see he hasn't been wasting his time writing in the hope of another break? Then there's Jill (Alana Allen), the would-be leading lady who walks all over everyone in her journey to the top, including her biggest fan, Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), who is at her beck and call. Will she receive her comeuppance? And what about Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), who has had her jaw wired shut on her parents' insistence to help her lose weight - will she be able to sing on the night of the big show? You get the idea.
There's a sports councillor at the camp who is never needed by the students, too busy belting out numbers, dancing or learning their lines, and it's no wonder - the real competition isn't in baseball or basketball, it's the fight to be the best, frequently at the expense of your fellow performers. The sniping is mostly between Jill and the others, but in true soap opera style nobody gets treated well all the time, and various characters are paired off. Vlad is seduced by Jill, Michael takes Vlad's advice and seduces one of the singers, Dee (Sasha Allen), to prove that he's not all gay, and Vlad hooks up with Ellen - but how faithful is he? And all the while the productions go on, offering us glimpses of amateur renditions of Broadway successes enacted by the young cast. The characters are set up as outsiders finding their destinies, yet any moves to sympathise are somewhat compromised by the spiteful overtones.
I get the impression that Camp will most appeal to those viewers who recognise the songs (and can even sing along), or those who are in love with the business they call show. But the relationships take the form of elements so familiar that they look almost a parody, and no one is blameless in ill-treating at least one other cast member, whether with an acid, mocking comment or something really vindictive, such as poisoning their rival before their starring role (played for laughs, surprisingly). The romantic side is the stuff of John Hughes movies (only with added homosexuality), as is the problem with parental acceptance that these ambitions will turn out well for their offspring - a view questioned by Hanley who tells them of the disappointment and rejection they have in store. By the end, Stephen Sondheim has arrived to give his blessing and everything is all right with the world of musical theatre, but the less charitable may be left considering that a serial killer in a hockey mask might have improved Camp, exuberant as it is.