Chances at honest adolescent emotion are rare in Hollywood, so it's a bit of a letdown to discover that "Girls Rock!", which gets right up close and personal with the aching problems of a handful of troubled teens, is a pinch too superficial, too hollow, too slight to really click. As a lengthy promo reel for Portland, Oregon's Rock n' Roll Camp for Girls, it makes the sale (learn guitar with Sleater-Kinney? Where do I sign my daughter up?), but as a film, there's no clear center, just a pile of almost-there revelations and random statistics.
Indeed, the stats are revealing but unnecessary, and they ultimately get in the way of getting us closer to understanding the subjects. Filmmakers Shane King and Arne Johnson (nobody understands girl power like middle age dudes!) slam the movie to a halt every so often to shove out stats (set, annoyingly, to fast-movin' punk visuals, as if the movie is desperate to prove its rock cred) about the low self esteem of high schoolers. While it's important to learn that girls struggle with self image problems throughout their teen years - facts which sometimes tie in to the struggles of the movie's own main subjects - such information, put on a repeat cycle, becomes redundant and takes us off track. (There's also info about, say, skimpy clothing in music videos, but the stats are always too vague. What does it mean? Are we to lament the ridiculously high number of rump shakers in rap videos, or the trashily-garbed lead singers of bubblegum pop? The filmmakers don't care - they just want a quick, knee-jerk boo from the crowd over such things, please don't think too much before moving on.) And that's not counting the embarrassing bits early on in which King and Johnson suck up to the camp grown-ups by championing the women rockers of the 90s as grunge saints displaced by the rise of Britney & Co. at the turn of the century.
Take out King and Johnson's own in-your-face commentary breaks, and "Girls Rock!" might have been a more effective documentary. The movie follows several girls, ages ranging from eight to eighteen, as they spend five days at the camp, where they're asked to form a band, learn an instrument, write a song, and perform live at a farewell concert. Camp counselors include a few famous names in indie rock, and they never push for perfection - just fun. But they can't help notice the real world problems that seep into daily camp life; the first few hours of camp, in which the girls must find bandmates, is likened to the cliquish world of the playground.
Some of these girls have come to camp to escape such pressures. But you can't escape the way girls are, it seems. There are arguments over band names, desperate maneuvers to fit in, and the opening of emotional floodgates when it comes time to pen some lyrics.
The filmmakers mainly focus on four girls: seventeen-year-old Misty, from a troubled foster home; fifteen-year-old Laura, whose love of death metal doesn't help her fit in at high school; and eight-year-olds Amelia, whose parents spoil her love of screechy Sonic Youth-ish guitars, and Palace, a bossy type whose concerns over fashion and "marketability" create a number of concerns.
But King and Johnson don't follow up enough on such concerns, opting instead to whittle her story down to "here's a girl who finds happiness in rock and roll." Maybe it's the no-boys-allowed policy at the camp that keeps the filmmakers at a distance (they had to rely on surrogates to get footage and interviews). Or maybe they were surprised to uncover so much emotional baggage, even from the littlest ones, instead of the isn't-rock-camp-kooky? angle they started with. Not even trips back home for further interviews can flesh out the details. The filmmakers end up rushing us through these girls' stories, achieving a vague sense of female angst but ultimately barely skimming the surface.
Video & Audio
The makers of "Girls Rock!" obviously put visuals last, as the image is constantly riddled with focus issues and bad framing. But that's a flaw of the movie itself, and not the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, which does a passable job in recreating the theatrical experience.
The soundtrack comes in two flavors, Dolby 5.1 and 2.0, but there's hardly much difference, as the surround mix keeps everything up front. Both tracks do a fine job of providing clear dialogue and raucous music interludes. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
The commentary track with directors Shane King and Arne Johnson is a bit too pause-heavy, and once they do start talking, their revelations are only so-so.
"Where Are They Rockin' Now?" (30:53) offers three-years-later updates on six of the girls, all interviewed at length.
"Girls Rock! Heroines" (47:22) is a catch-all section that collects outtake interviews with Beth Ditto (of The Gossip) and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney), clips from "Sistaz Skit" (a sort of peer counseling skit put on for the girls), and excerpts from "Don't Need You: A Herstory of Riot Grrl," Kerry Koch's lo-fi documentary short on the "Riot Grrl" indie rock scene of the 90s. (Since half that film is included here, why not the whole darn thing?)
"The Ready Performs" (6:08) features an excellent performance from the camp band The Ready with their song "Jen (I Try, I Try)," plus footage of a rehearsal performance of "Little Yellow Lemon Song."
"DIY Rock Tools" (15:19) collects deleted scenes broken into three themes: "Self Defense," "Zines," and "Rock Career."
The film's trailer (2:57) rounds out the set. A batch of trailers (including one for the sleazy Paris Hilton makeover comedy "The Hottie and the Nottie" - um, hooray for girl power?) plays as the disc loads.
There's just barely enough in "Girls Rock!" that works - or almost works - that fans of the documentary genre and/or girl power missives might do fine to Rent It.