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Molding the Next
Joan Jett

Molding the Next
Joan Jett


The new documentary Girls Rock traces a group of mini-rockers honing their craft at camp and serves as an entertaining reminder that empowerment doesn't always mean shedding clothes

Little girls have a lot in common with rock stars: after all, they're both rebellious and they can scream like nobody's business. Why, then, is the carefully focus-grouped Hannah Montana the closest thing that girls have to a rock icon? Her brand of pop stardom is worlds away from Girls Rock, the new documentary set at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls -- the kind of place where your counselor is Carrie Brownstein from Sleater Kinney and your vocal coach is Beth Ditto from The Gossip. I know a lot of women who would love to spend a summer at a place like that (especially since a good majority of the camp counselors are lesbians), but this Portland, Ore.-based camp is strictly for 8- to 18-year-old girls, and it's their interplay that makes the film so fascinating.

Among the girls profiled here are four primary subjects (including Amelia, an 8-year-old who writes songs about her Chihuahua, and Misty, a teenager from a broken home), but there's no doubt about who the two stars of Girls Rock are -- and they couldn't be more different. Laura is the most sympathetic, an adopted Korean teenager from Oklahoma who's full of bubbly, awkward personality and given to saying things like, "I hate myself already, so high school doesn't degrade me that much." Let loose in the welcoming environment of camp, she's unable to contain herself, hugging other campers relentlessly (in what appears to be only a half-joke, she asks the shyest one to be her "life partner") and making cringe-worthy remarks about being overweight (as when she suggests a plan to chew her food and then spit it out).

If Laura dominates by default, 8-year-old Palace does it by design. The daughter of a fashion designer, she's obsessed with the spotlight, wresting the mike away from other girls and shrieking when she doesn't get her way. One of the most fascinating things about the camp is the vast gulf apparent between girls who have had their voices encouraged and those who don't know how to speak, and Palace is determined to take advantage of it, cowing the quieter girls in her band until they fall in line. She's so bossy that her demeanor practically matures the girls single-handedly; the same campers who were afraid to scream out loud on the first day of camp are leading an insurrection against Palace by Day 4.

Though many of the girls seem to come from affluent, liberal backgrounds (witness the exotic names like Palace and Sunshine, or the lyrics written by one preteen: ""Bush is such an idiot/He won't sign the Kyoto treaty"), the lessons on display here are essential to anyone navigating a little girl through today's pop culture minefield. The camp works not just because it encourages girls to develop their voices, or because it gives outcasts a place to fit in, but because it teaches young women how to relate to each other (yes, even Palace) without emulating "Mean Girls" behavior. The film is best when it trusts its subjects to deliver these messages to us and weakest when it tries to employ 1950s newsreels or fact-driven title cards to educate us -- for example, will anyone with eyes really be shocked to find out that women tend to wear more revealing clothing than men? Girls Rock tries to float Britney Spears as an example of all that's wrong with pop idols, but little girls are already more savvy and more specific than that; witness Amelia, who says blithely, "I'm not someone like Haylie Duff who just wants to be famous." It's a good sentiment, but it's a shame -- if more Amelias were famous, we might not need the Haylies anymore.

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