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MOVIE REVIEW

Taking their shots

Exhilarating 'Camp' gives misfits a musical break

It's the rare movie that can make you weep with sorrow and happiness before the opening credits are even finished. "Camp" begins with brief glimpses of teenage humiliations -- a plain Jane taking her brother as a date to the prom, a slight young man wearing an evening gown to his prom and getting his ribs kicked in, an overweight girl having her mouth wired shut -- and scores them to a keening gospel chorus that gorgeously connects the dots of their loneliness.

In spite of that, "Camp" is a comedy, and for all its cliches and clumsiness, close to a great one. Set at Camp Ovation, a fictionalized version of the Catskills performing arts camp that writer-director Todd Graff attended as a kid (other alumni include Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Natalie Portman, none of whom I can picture working with gimp), the movie somehow triangulates "Fame," "Meatballs," and Stephen Sondheim's entire body of work, and it sends you home floating on air -- or to the record store to buy the soundtrack.

The film's characters are the misfits -- the ones who lip-synch show tunes in their bedroom mirrors and find solace in that hopeful irony peculiar to Broadway musicals -- and their stunned joy at being among others like them is palpable. (As soon as the bus pulls away from the moms and dads, everyone bursts into "I'm Still Here" from Sondheim's "Follies.") There's an inner hierarchy, though: Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), the plain Jane, has the voice and the talent but not the looks, while blond vixen Jill (Alana Allen) is such a queen bee that she acquires an acolyte right off the bus in dark, desperate Fritzi (Anna Kendrick).

As for the boys, well, they're all gay, so the appearance in their midst of Vlad (Daniel Letterle) -- sensitive, suburban, and hetero -- marks a Close Encounter of the Straight Kind. Much of "Camp" is taken up with the characters' romances, betrayals, and growth: Vlad woos both Ellen and Jill while trying to locate the thin line between being liked and being a user; Michael (Robin De Jesus), the prom drag-queen of the opening scenes, craves Vlad's friendship so much that he disastrously tries to prove his straight credentials with best friend Dee (Sasha Allen).

A separate plot strand has rock producer Don Dixon playing Bert Hanley, washed-up Broadway director and new counselor at Camp Ovation. Boozy and embittered, the character is straight out of a 1930s Warner Bros. musical, but he's also hilarious, calling his charges "a bunch of little freaks -- the more normal we try to make 'em, the more lonely and isolated they're gonna feel."

Graff has a lot to learn as a director -- at best, "Camp" looks as though it were shot on an indie sneaker-lace -- and the cast of first-timers can be amateurish. But the characters come alive when they sing, and so does the movie: The musical numbers can make you fizzy with rapture. Two peaks out of many: Fritzi finally goes "All About Eve" on the hateful Jill, takes the stage in her place, and whips out a blisteringly cynical rendition of Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" -- it's as though Elaine Stritch had fallen to earth in the body of a frowsy teenager. And Tiffany Taylor, playing the girl with the wired jaw, gets the headgear off in time to sing a heart-rending showstopper called "Here's Where I Stand," in which the adolescent desire to simply be seen for oneself takes on unexpected majesty.

That song was written for the film by composer Michael Gore ("Fame") and lyricist Lynn Ahrens ("Ragtime"), while Stephen Trask ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") wrote the score. There are other heavyweights involved -- including a visitation from (in this context) God -- and you can sense the grown-ups' connection with the teenagers they once were. The community in "Camp" extends behind the camera, and it invites everyone in front -- and in the audience -- onto the stage.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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