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Movie Review

At this rock camp, power chords, power plays, and girl power

In 'Girls Rock!,' Palace throws a fit and bites a bandmate.'I think she thinks a lot about being marketable,' says her mom. In "Girls Rock!," Palace throws a fit and bites a bandmate."I think she thinks a lot about being marketable," says her mom. (Nicole Weingart)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 31, 2008

How are girls supposed to behave in a culture that tells them they're Disney princesses for the first 12 years and sex toys after that? "Girls Rock!" has one answer: Strap on a Fender and rage against the machine.

Arne Johnson and Shane King's documentary about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., is a messy, DIY affair, and it throws scattershot observations against the screen when it could have dug in and mined for greater insight. It's still well worth seeing - noisy, funny, troubling, liberating - especially if you have a young female-type person knocking about the house.

A nonprofit crash course in self-esteem and power chords, the camp brings in girls ranging from 8 to 18 and gives them one week to form a band, write a song, and get it ready for a concert attended by 700 cheering locals. Choosing band names is a perennial hang-up; musical skill isn't. One neophyte is handed a bass guitar at the start of the film and by week's end is thwomping away in a pretty decent Tina Weymouth imitation.

The counselors include such rock stars as Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, and their presence sends a message: Fearless female rockers strode the earth well before the legions of Britney clones spoiled everything. In the words of one teacher, they're trying to give girls the space to talk about their feelings as well as the space to play their feelings.

In drum class, that translates to a counselor's advice to "Hit it hard like you're killing something." "Girls Rock!" tosses up a lot of statistics about the ruinous self-image girls learn from our culture, and how it affects their bodies, spirits, and schoolwork, but it contrasts those numbers with the abrupt punk joy of plugging in and cutting loose. "Why don't you start your own band, supergenius?" one camper asks rhetorically. "That's a lot better than having a boyfriend who's in a band."

The filmmakers focus on four campers during the 2005 session, all of whom reveal stress fractures beneath their surface charms. Misty, 17, is the one who gets handed the bass; a dedicated soccer player who has just emerged from a 10-month lock-down for drug violations, she has to keep her cool while the hip-hop band she has joined decides to write a ballad. Laura, 15, is a Korean-American riotgrrl - she likes death-metal and bunnies - whose spiky ebullience hides a swamp of self-loathing.

Amelia (she prefers "Am") is a bespectacled little anarchist who writes and sings atonal songs about her dog, Pippi - someone in downtown Manhattan get this girl a grant, quick. She thrives on being "chaostic," which presents a problem to her bandmates in P.L.A.I.D. (People Lying Around in Dirt), especially a wonderfully long-suffering keyboard player named Raven. "You have to care about the beat," insists a counselor to Am. "That's what being in a band is."

Right there "Girls Rock!" touches on a theme it might have explored more thoroughly: How a child's self-aggrandizing dreams of celebrity have to be compromised if they're ever going to function in the real world. We cater to our sons' and daughters' natural egotism by telling them they're all stars (if we don't, the culture does), but being in a working band means giving in, sharing the spotlight, playing along.

In that sense, the sweetest and most terrifying child here is Palace, a 7-year-old with the face of an angel and the shriek of a heavy-metal banshee. She's adorable until you notice how much she looks in the mirror; her nonplussed mother says "I think she thinks a lot about being marketable." In one scene, Palace throws a diva fit and bites a bandmate, and you wonder, Is this how Courtney Love started?

The difference is that Palace's band and the counselors stage an intervention in time for the final concert, in which all the songs are performed with nervous, rough-hewn enthusiasm. Laura even emerges as a bona-fide rock star, her happy, unstoppable energy erupting as she finds her place in the din. "Everybody needs to be saved," says a counselor, and "Girls Rock!" hints that it's possible if you go at it one girl and one band at a time.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

Girls Rock!

Directed by: Arne Johnson and Shane King

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through Aug. 16

Running time: 91 minutes

Rated: PG (thematic elements and a little bit of language)

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