It's the kind of movie you want to hug after you finish watching it, because it's so good-hearted while keeping corniness at a minimum. After having watched a serious and disturbingly realistic portrayal of the teenage years in AFTERSCHOOL, it was great to see the other side of the coin less than two days later: BANDSLAM is a cheerfully enjoyable portrayal of the teens. That's not to say that the film doesn't deal with tough, painful subjects, because it does - it wouldn't be so successful at what it sets out to do if it didn't. But on the whole, this is the sort of cinematic effort that will undoubtedly make you smile, and even better, you won't have to suspend your disbelief to do so.
Will (Gaelan Connell) is an outsider at his high school in Ohio. He's bullied constantly, though we find out later that the reasons why he gets bullied are a lot more serious and heart-wrenching than we may have imagined. Fortunately, his mom (Lisa Kudrow) gets a better job in New Jersey and they move there. Will's now at a bigger high school, and he predicts that now it'll be much easier to be a nobody, since there's so many kids at this new school: "I don't do well in groups." That prediction soon proves wrong, as Will finds himself interacting with Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), who explains that the "5" in her name is silent, and with Charlotte (Alyson Michalka), who sees him perform a "good samaritan act" and immediately recruits him to help her manage the school's day care. Sa5m is in the same grade as Will, and they're paired up in a class project for which they'll each have to give an oral presentation describing the other person. Charlotte is older than Will, and as we learn, last year she was the "blonde, popular cheerleader", but she's suddenly had a 180-degree change of personality, which has led her to start interacting with social misfits like Will.
One of the best things about BANDSLAM is that, though we have one guy and two girls as the main characters, this NEVER becomes a "love triangle" situation. The romantic side of the film focuses on the relationship between Will and Sa5m as they work on the project and get to know each other very well, while the relationship between Will and Charlotte is a friendship that hits several bumps along the way. Everything in BANDSLAM is more complex than you'd think: the reason why Charlotte had a sudden change in personality is nowhere to be found in the "Conventional Teen Movie" handbook.
The blossoming romance between Will and Sa5m is a pure delight to watch. Their first kiss is depicted in a perfectly awkward way. The scene in which each of them gets to give the oral presentation on the other person is fantastic and super freaking endearing. I challenge anyone (even those with a heart of stone) not to feel moved by the looks they give each other while Will's video plays in the classroom. Meanwhile, Will and Charlotte collaborate (along with a few other kids) to form a band and have it participate in Bandslam, a contest for high school bands in which Will and Charlotte hope to beat out their school's other band, The Glory Dogs. Things hit a roadblock when Charlotte suffers a big change in her life, which leads her to reveal the reason why she switched from being the stereotypical popular girl to hanging out with the "losers" instead.
While I appreciated the surprisingly complex reason that led Charlotte to change her personality, there are more things that happen towards the end of the film that are harder to believe and not as easy to appreciate. Charlotte changes her approach to things at the last minute in an almost too convenient way, in order to give the film a rosier ending. There are also two contrivances involving Charlotte's ex-boyfriend Ben (Scott Porter), one involving the information he obtains about Will's past and another involving the song he sings at Bandslam, that feel misplaced. Despite all that, though, you have to give credit to the movie for not having the ultimate outcome of the competition turn out to be what you would've expected.
BANDSLAM is cute, touching and heartfelt, yet it's unafraid to deal with pain and with people's demons. The fact that these three characters are each three-dimensional is crucial, because we wouldn't care much otherwise. See how it's actually possible for a movie that looks like it could've premiered on the Disney channel to still be a delight to watch, and without insulting one's intelligence? This movie also serves as yet another counterargument to those who think that it's impossible to give freshness to familiar storylines. It's not impossible. You just need well-drawn characters, original dialogue, dramatic potency and some sweetness and good humor to boot. BANDSLAM has all of that.