BY GARY M. KRAMER | There is much sound and fury, signifying something in “Girls Rock!,” an ambitious though not entirely successful documentary about a rock and roll camp for 8-18 year-old females. On the surface, the film breaks down stereotypes of women in music -and clearly shows how girls can become empowered through performance. When a female band burns up the stage at camp one afternoon, many of the girls in the audience see these performers as role models.
Underneath profiles of four female campers are more valuable messages about how issues of self-esteem for pre-teen and teenage girls are critically shaped, but also about the terrible hurdles too many face. A barrage of statistics in “Girl's Rock!” reveals, among many things, that teenage girls want to lose weight – one in ten nine year-old have made themselves vomit to do so – are too often sexually harassed, and frequently name a part of their body when asked to talk about their best quality.
Directed by Shane King and Arne Johnson
Opening Mar. 7
Angelika Film Center
Laura, a death metal-obsessed, heavyset Korean teenager who was adopted by an Oklahoma couple, reveals that she often feels she does not fit in. She may try a little too hard to bond with potential band mates, but Laura ends up making friends who find her “interesting (in a good way).”
Misty, a 17-year-old who has been in and out of lockdown and group homes while coping with parents who are addicts, picks up the bass guitar for the first time at the camp and finds a new level of self-worth and maturity. But she also fights with her band mates about naming their group.
Finding security and strength through the bond of music
In contrast, two eight year-olds, Am (Amelia), who prefers noise over quiet and has “boundary” issues, and Palace, a scream machine who attacks and threatens her band mates, enter the camp as outsized personalities, whose challenge is to learn how to work as a team rather than always play solo. That said, in the appropriate arenas, they continue to be encouraged to be as loud as they want while rocking out. Yet it's easy to connect the dots to see how the extroverted Palace might become as self-doubting as Laura in a few years.
The four portraits are engaging because they show that while many of the girls are lonely and insecure, the bond the girls forge when brought together helps them deal with their shame and shyness. When mediation is necessary, the campers are prompted to communicate with each other and talk out their problems and differences.
Perhaps deliberately, issues of sexuality are not addressed in the film, and this seems liked a missed opportunity.
And as valid and as valuable as much of “Girls Rock!” is, it is also unfocused. Directors Shane King and Arne Johnson feature snippets of the groups writing, rehearsing, and working out their problems, but there seems little rhyme or reason to what we see. The final showcase of performances would have more impact if viewers saw the complete journey from songwriting to show, not just idiosyncratic moments here and there.
When a group of the campers sing together, there is a bond between them in their making of music that is truly impressive, but the filmmakers seem more interested in presenting drama, such as a biting incident that occurs when Palace is forbidden to have the mic.
King and Johnson do a good job of presenting underlying data about the risks facing girls growing up, effectively combining archival footage and animation, but they too often leave the audience dangling. There is an interview with a camper battling RND, Reflex Neurovascular Dystrophy, a condition of which 80 percent of sufferers are girls, but the problem is not pursued in depth.
There is also frustratingly little insight into how these girls feel about the issues the filmmakers raise. We get only a hint as to Laura's thinking about why she spits out her chewed food.
The most heartfelt testimony comes from the mother of one of the girls who says that the camp – which provides lessons in self-defense – teaches girls how to treat other girls. When Misty reveals that she became a bully to avoid being bullied, the import of the mom's comments hits home.
The music is only part of the message in “Girls Rock!” Although the film often rocks in what it has to say, it's a shame it didn't do a better job of threading the needle to make sure its worthy message doesn't fall on deaf ears.