In the indie-rock haven of Portland, OR, there lies a place where girls are free to pick up guitars, drumsticks and microphones and strum, bang, and yell at the top of their lungs. It's a place where the glossy ideal of a woman takes a backseat to rock goddesses like Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and The Gossip's Beth Ditto. A place where girls can speak their minds through song lyrics about anything they want — their cats, their moms, George W. Bush — and perform them to wild applause.
That place is the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, and it's the subject of the new documentary Girls Rock. In one week, the girls at the camp — most of whom are strangers — must form bands, learn instruments, write songs, and perform in front of more than 700 people. How do girls who can't even speak into the microphone at the start of the week, who are struggling with the conflict between the people they are and the template society pushes them toward, learn to scream out their own songs in just five days?
That freeing transformation is at the heart of Girls Rock, as filmmakers Shane King and Arne Johnson seek to understand what makes the camp, in their words, "a life raft." The movie focuses on four first-year campers as they work to fit in with their bands and gain the confidence to shine in the spotlight. As a story, it's certainly inspirational; as a movie, it mostly works despite some weaker moments. For more of my take, just read more.
When I talked with Johnson and King, they explained that they wanted to follow the campers who together addressed the issues all the girls at the camp face. There's Palace, a tough 8-year-old who fights to be the center of attention; Misty, a former drug addict; Amelia, a somewhat awkward loner; and Laura, an adopted Korean who struggles with her race and body image. While it seemed at times that they followed only the very most troubled girls, it's true that all four represent something universal.
The film is at its strongest when it focuses on the campers' journeys through self-defense classes and band meetings and concerts with big-time rockers. The camp is clearly not a perfect place: There are fights and tears and painfully awkward moments, like the cringe-inducing scene where the girls choose their bandmates. And yet working through those struggles only makes the girls braver and better-equipped to express themselves. The music is, at best, a backdrop to those stories, but that's fine — the film is less about the music than what it takes to be able to make it.
Unfortunately, King and Johnson chose to underscore the girls' scenes with bright, overly designed interludes with statistics about girls' body image and reactions to society. The information is important, but the statistics don't necessarily fit — stylistically or, in some cases, thematically — with the scenes of the campers that bracket them. More useful might have been to have the girls discuss the issues directly; statistics are fine, but it's more compelling when those words come out of the mouths of the very real girls the movie has spent so much time introducing us to.
Ultimately, though, those words do come: Palace learns — through self-defense, screaming, and a few heated discussions with her band — how to express her anger better. Misty and Amelia figure out how to compromise in a group without losing themselves. And Laura, whose story hit me hardest, goes from nonchalantly saying she hates herself early in the film to exuberantly declaring that she's awesome. Girls Rock may be a case where the subject matter is stronger than the resulting film — but that doesn't mean it's not a film to see with your mothers and sisters and daughters. Just make sure to have tissues in your pocket and Sleater-Kinney on the stereo for the ride home.