The Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls is a Portland, OR, institution where young ladies between the ages of 8 and 18 can shack up for a week and learn what it's like to kick out the jams in a real rock band. Having now been running for several years and expanding in time and scope, the new documentary Girls Rock! documents the school during one of its original flavor summer sessions.
Directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King, Girls Rock! follows four girls of different ages and background as they leave their homes--some traveling from out of state--to discover their inner rockstar. The school's program is simple: hustle the girls in a room, have them organize by genre interest, splinter them off into bands, and spend a week teaching them their instruments and helping them practice. Teachers include local musicians, including more famous luminaries like Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Beth Ditto of the Gossip (though, in the spirit of true equality, they are introduced without fanfare). The week is capped by a performance where each band assembles before an adoring crowed and plays a song they composed over the previous five days. Polish is not a necessary element, the idea is just to get up and do it.
In the midst of this, we also get sidebars explaining some distressing facts about problems that young girls encounter growing up, largely stemming from confidence and body issues symptomatic of social mores and mass media consumption. While the segments at the camp are done in a fairly straightforward documentary style, the informational portions are more animated, using 1950s instructional films, Barbie dolls, and 1980s video style to create a collage reminiscent of 1990s DIY riot grrl culture. Though important, these are the weaker scenes in the movie, and they feel more geared toward educating a certain portion of the target audience. Medicine with a spoonful of sugar.
Far more interesting are the girls themselves, and anyone but the most hard-hearted SOBs will get wrapped up in their struggles to find themselves. There are two very young kids--an emotional diva named Palace and the overactive Amelia--who are cute and astonishing for the rawness of their expression; yet, the more captivating girls are the older ones. Laura is a sweet Korean teenager whose death metal obsession is an outlet for darker feelings. Adopted into a white family in middle America, she's got plenty of complexes about not fitting in, and it's heart warming to see her in an environment where she learns to harness her own power and to trust people to like her for who she is.
Learning to overcome is also the goal of Misty, a troubled girl who has already kicked an addiction to meth, gotten out of gang violence, and even been homeless. Here is a girl who has faced some of the worst that life can throw at you, and she's managed to pick herself up. Even so, that doesn't mean she has yet realized that she has more to offer than an ability to survive. She knows she has things she enjoys and can do, but like Laura, she doesn't know that others will accept her doing them.
As the week winds down and Girls Rock! closes, a sense of triumph permeates the air. Despite the doubts the girls start off with, they leave with a sense of accomplishment. Like other teen-achievement documentaries of recent years (Spellbound immediately comes to mind), the success of the film rests on the audience getting wrapped up in the kids' endeavors. Like a great sports movie, seeing them meet their goals makes us want to stand up and cheer, and then hopefully inspire other girls to follow suit and chase their own dreams. Then maybe there could be an updated Girls Rock! II where all of those statistics and theories about how girls lack the confidence to be who they are won't be necessary.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.