Review in a Hurry: High School Musical this ain't, thanks to real live bands with serious cred, a normal-looking dude in the lead role and a less-than-picture-perfect story. But it's Vanessa Hudgens who steals the mic with a surprisingly subtle performance.
The Bigger Picture: Another day, another teen musical, it seems. But not so fast. Yes, Bandslam's makeup crew cannot avoid the overgroomed styling that plagues most teen flicks these days, including a borderline obsession with big-barrel curling irons and false eyelashes. But beyond that, director Todd Graff has managed to dodge the candy-sweet slickness that so often seeps into current teen flicks. Instead we have an uneven but honest hybrid coming of age dramedy, somewhere between a Disney machine musical and the better films from music-loving writer-director Cameron Crowe.
Chinless teen indie rock fan Will Burton (Gaelan Connell, all Adam's apple) feels out of place in Ohio. He says as much in letters he writes to his idol, David Bowie. (Yes, another movie writer who uses his lead character to lecture young audiences about The Good Old Days of rock. God forbid we have a teen who worships Panic at the Disco.)
Will and his mom (Lisa Kudrow, who has lost none of her comic timing since Friends) move to New Jersey, a wondrous strange land where the high schools have live bands playing in the cafeteria and students have their own Wikipedia pages. A giant battle of the bands is coming up. A blazing blond senior girl named Charlotte recruits the starstruck Will to manage her new act, just when the brooding Sa5m (a wise-eyed Hudgens) starts crushing out on him. (Oh, the "5" isn't a misprint. It's silent. It's an alt-girl thing, see.)
Aside from Hudgens, who plays it cool, the cast's acting can feel forced, and the film meanders a bit overmuch before the Bandslam rockers—including local acts recruited during shooting in Austin—finally turn up the amps. But whenever the music is playing, it's tough to fight the urge to rock out right in your theater seat.
The 180—a Second Opinion: The instruments are tight, but Hudgens and co-star Aly Michalka don't have much to offer in the vocal department.