Shane King and Arne Johnson wisely set up Girls Rock!, their raucous documentary about a five-day, all-girl, Portland rock 'n' roll camp, as a hootin' 'n' hollerin' hunka swaggering female empowerment. Heaven knows we can always use a movie like that, and I wouldn't want to dampen the powder on anyone's blast at the movies. But as King and Johnson would no doubt admit (after you've bought your ticket), Girls Rock! is anything but an escapist flick.
The Bay Area filmmakers (who hail from Portland originally) take the now-standard documentary approach of introducing a few offbeat but recognizable characters, then follow their journey through an uncommon experience. The setting here is the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a rowdy, unruly mess o' gals age eight to eighteen. The week begins with each camper picking her favored genre (from pop to hip-hop, with every stop in-between), and embarking on the awkward and intense process of forming a band with other kids under the same banner. Choosing a name seems to be the most stressful activity; writing original songs, rehearsing and performing at the closing-night blowout isn't half as threatening to the average girl's self-esteem.
At least that's the case with Misty, a tough-talking but charming teenager who's gone through a stretch of homelessness and drug abuse and has a miniscule fuse for any perceived slight. Good thing she's not in a band with eight-year-old Amelia, who dominates and intimidates her wee peers with screeching lyrics and shrieking guitar. Another tyro terror, Palace, has the preternatural poise, posture and calculated self-awareness of a junior beauty pageant contestant, which makes her mother justifiably concerned that she's way too appearance-obsessed.
Reactions will vary, but this middle-aged male discerned a good deal of pain behind the façade each girl has constructed to conceal her adolescent insecurities. By comparison, perpetually embarrassed heavy-metal misfit Laura -- an outgoing Korean adoptee from Oklahoma (!) -- appears downright healthy. At least someday she'll outgrow her proclivity for voicing every goofy, self-deprecating thought that pops into her head. The other girls will have more difficulty shedding the personae they've devised to deal with the world.
This is Girls Rock's powerful central theme, that it's not just crazy-hard growing up female in America, but it's getting harder earlier. Consider this factoid, one of many strewn throughout the film, "In 1970, the average age for girls to start dieting was 14. By 1990 it was 8." We are provided this unsettling news in arresting fashion, via local filmmaker Liz Canning's animated interludes mimicking the lo-fi, handmade style of zines, scrapbooks and ransom notes. Backed by abrasive guitar rock, her sequences supply a wealth of sobering statistics with a wholly appropriate shot of edge and energy.
If you're more inclined to accentuate the positive, the doc features plenty of affirming interviews with camp teachers and administrators (mostly tattooed rockers, of course) and giddy shots of girls starting to own their instrument. The closing night concert -- not a competition, thankfully, so you needn't dread another teen sports climax a la Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom -- is inescapably heartwarming. The effect is enhanced by King and Johnson's smart decision not to build up to the show throughout the movie; when each band hits the stage, we simply expect the four main girls to experience a sense of completion rather than a lightning moment of life-altering transformation.
That said, the upbeat ending isn't completely earned. Good vibes surround the showcase concert, but we're told about the ground each girl has covered over the previous five days instead of truly witnessing it for ourselves. What the film does reveal, most viscerally in the band dynamics -- and this is what makes Girls Rock! both a savvy and savage film -- are the hostilities and turf wars that erupt when girls are compelled to cooperate with each other. As mean as boys and men are, sisters aren't slouches about doin' it to themselves.
Moviegoers are pretty well assured of walking out of Girls Rock! with a contact high, jazzed about the growth opportunity that Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls afforded Amelia, Misty, Laura and Palace. The film's longer-lasting contribution, though, is the degree of serious discussion, and reflection, it inspires.
Girls Rock! opens Friday, March 7, 2008 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.