You could be forgiven for assuming upon first glance that Bandslam is based on one of the dozens of interchangeable Disney Channel kids shows like Girl Meets World, Austin and Ally or Jessie or any other show featuring overly pampered kids who live in perfect worlds and teach life lessons through twenty minute episodes filled with false conflicts and overly neat resolutions. While those types of shows are fine for what they are and have their hearts in the right place, the characters that populate them often feel as artificial as the stories they find themselves in.
Imagine if you will a show (or film in this case) that dealt with all those same subjects but with characters who feel real and actually denounce the usual stereotyping that those other programs lovingly embrace. That is Bandslam, a film that deceptively lures you in with low expectations based off its cast and their reputations but reveals itself to be a refreshingly honest look at the joy and hardships that come with growing up. Read the full review after the break.
Teenage comedies are a dime a dozen and with most of them just recycling the same tired material over and over again it can drive one to writing off the genre all together. But every now and then someone gets it right. Recent examples of getting it right are films like Mean Girls and Easy A, both of which take the well worn story of the outsider trying to fit in anyway they can, then losing who they truly are in the process only to resurface again at the end with the lesson learned and flipping it on its head. That formula, while trite and loaded with cliches, still holds a lot of truths about life and the growing pains that come with it. The teen comedy Bandslam is a poster child for that formula and while it doesn't reinvent the wheel, it succeeds where most others fail simply by treating the audience and its characters with a level of respect that is sadly uncommon in the genre.
Things couldn't start out more cliche as when we first meet Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), your average awkward teenage kid who is constantly teased and bullied by the other more popular kids in school. We even get the obligatory rundown of all the school social groups such as the jocks, weirdos, smart kids, etc. But things quickly take a turn for the better and unexpected when Will discovers his mom (Lisa Kudrow) got a new job which means they will be moving to a new town where Will and his mom can get a fresh start. No longer fearing being the butt of every joke, Will finds a new confidence almost immediately after he befriends the school recluse Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), and no that isn't a typo, the "5" is silent.
Just when you think you have the film pegged as another sappy teen romance, Will is approached by another girl, Charolette (Aly Michalka), a very outspoken and energetic girl who not only happens to be a senior to Will's freshman but is also interested in making Will the manager of her band. Will, who is an extreme music enthusiast (he writes daily emails to David Bowie), quickly accepts and soon he is in charge of getting the band ready for the upcoming band championship called Bandslam, where all the local schools participate in hopes of taking top prize which is none other than getting a record deal and hopefully hitting it big. Will must then balance his newfound friendship with Sa5m, his obligations with Charolette and his relationship with his mom all the while discovering who he is and what he truly wants in the process.
What really makes Bandslam work is its devotion to go against the grain whenever possible. Every character will seem familiar at first, but the beauty of what director Todd Graff has done here is subverting all our expectations for them. Vanessa Hudgens is cast against type as this socially awkward girl who is the epitome of Wednesday Addams from the Addams Family movies/television show (a character Hudgens modeled her performance after). Likewise for Aly Michalka who would feel right at home playing the head cheerleader/Prom Queen type but instead targets the most unlikely person in the school to befriend (although she does have a surprising hidden agenda behind her actions).
Just about the only character of the three main characters that still fits their stereotype is Will, but that isn't really a problem since this story is more about being accepted for who you are than trying to turn yourself into somebody else to get what you want. Will has other issues that make him unique as far as this type of character goes where instead of lying about himself he is lying to himself which in turn makes him lie to people like Sa5m and Charolette, two of the most important people in his life. Even his mom, played very warmly with a soft comedic touch by Kudrow, finds herself in a difficult place being the only person in Will's life that ties him to the one thing he refuses to face.
For everything the film gets right about its characters though the film itself hits a few bumps in the road in other areas. The most obvious shortcoming are the songs themselves, they just aren't that good, which may be on purpose but still stands out as a shortcoming especially considering the entire film revolves around the creation of music. Another point of contention are a handful of key moments where the film does succumb to clichés such as the scene where Will misses his date with Sa5m which I didn't believe for one second would happen and another where a tragedy befalls one of the characters and causes them to suddenly become distant where in reality friends would reach out for one another for support, not shun them.
Those admittedly minor flaws aside though, Bandslam is a thoroughly enjoyable teenage comedy that both adults and the target audience can appreciate alike. The performances are good with noteworthy work coming from Kudrow as the troubled mom and Hudgens playing way against type. Bandslam won't win any awards for originality but its heart is in the right place and with some great characters this fully realized and a script that perpetuates positivity towards being oneself while avoiding the usual conventions these types of films bask in, its difficult to feel anything but pure delight while watching it.
For all those out there looking for something that looks, tastes and feels like a Disney production but treats its subject and its characters with a level of maturity not usually associated with that type of material, look no further than Bandslam. You may think that the film is just about bubblegum pop music and the stereotypical teenagers that the Disney channel has trademarked, but skipping this one would be doing yourself a huge disservice. Swallow your pride and give this one a chance, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.