Parents, relax: Although its advertising may suggest a kiddie movie about high school bands, or a vocal showcase for High School Musical starlet Vanessa Hudgens, director Todd Graff's Bandslam manages to be energetic, entertaining, and surprisingly mature. And while it sometimes bites off a bit more than it can chew, the very fact that it chooses to tackle serious issues -- such as death, loneliness, imprisonment, drunk driving -- instead of wallowing in cheesy teenage melodrama comes as a breath of fresh air: Teenagers who see the film will be forced to think, and adults who are dragged along will be engaged. Article continues below
High school student Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) doesn't have many friends in Cincinnati. So when his mother (Lisa Kudrow) gets a job in the Northeast, Will gladly leaves his old life behind and starts over at Martin Van Buren High School in New Jersey. Right away, he notices the school's emphasis on Bandslam, an annual "battle of the bands" event.
In human studies class, Will meets a quiet, reserved girl (Hudgens) who goes by the name of Sa5m (the five is silent). At first, she doesn't show much interest in Will. But after getting paired up for a class project, the two become friends. Then they become more than friends. Enter Charlotte (Alyson Michalka), the ex-girlfriend of Ben (Scott Porter), who is the lead singer of the biggest band at Van Buren. Charlotte has her own band and intends to beat Ben's band at Bandslam. Too bad her band sucks. Luckily, our hero Will is a music expert and lends a helping hand. Charlotte names Will the manager of her band. Then, these two become more than friends, too. Uh oh!
The young actors manage to avoid the afterschool special-level acting one might expect from the aforementioned setup. Hudgens, despite being the primary selling point of the film, knows when to hold back: She doesn't fight for attention or upstage her fellow actors. Michalka gives her character a breezy energy and dazzles in both dramatic and comedic scenes. But it's the charming and charismatic Connell who holds the film together.
Yet, despite solid performances from the cast and a screenplay that's not afraid to discuss life-and-death issues such as manslaughter and losing a parent to illness, Graff and co-screenwriter Josh A. Cagan can't quite nail the romantic interactions between their teen characters. At first, Will seems to like Charlotte more than Sa5m. Then the latter girl seems to be the better option. All of which could make for an interesting dilemma, but the film seems hesitant to examine this conflict in any meaningful way: We never really see Will actively struggling over the decision. Instead, Bandslam keeps everything casual -- a sop, perhaps, to its target demographic, but a disappointment given the film's admirable willingness to tackle other serious matters.