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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Distaff riffin'

Chicks learn the power behind the chords at Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

As exhilarating, complicated, and nervy as the girls it portrays, Shane King and Arne Johnson's documentary about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls packs so much into 90 minutes it's easy to forget that it only covers five days in the lives of its subjects. But those days are immensely significant for the girls and teens who attend the Portland, Ore., camp where music is the vehicle for driving home vital lessons in confidence, assertiveness and determination.

Founded in 2001, the RnRC4G offers an immersion program where girls form bands, write a song together and perform for a sizable audience, all in less than a week. Some campers are budding musicians; others have never picked up an instrument before. All are welcome to the female-only refuge where learning to deal positively with each other is as important as mastering chords.

King and Johnson focus on four girls whose only common trait is their social outsider status. Grade-schoolers Amelia and Palace and high-schoolers Laura and Misty have all been ostracized, and have grown accustomed to being alone or functioning within a small, trusted circle of friends. At RnRC4G, they're thrust into a community that offers unwavering encouragement, but also requires wholehearted participation. Their reactions aren't always sweet or nice — recovering addict Misty turns sullen, and picture-perfect Palace becomes a bully — but that's an important part of the story the filmmakers don't shy away from.

This male duo goes to great pains to explore why the emotional lives of girls are so messy, regularly injecting statistics about body image, self-confidence and gender stereotyping into the narrative. While informative, these asides aren't as powerful as interviews with camp advisers, including Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, who deal with the complex dynamics of the girls in their charge by tuning into their own experiences of rejection and resilience. (King and Johnson's one misstep is identifying the Breeders, Bikini Kill and PJ Harvey as the "original rockin' girls," ignoring their influential predecessors such as Patti Smith.)

Along with a host of music workshops, the RnRC4G offers self-defense classes as well as conflict resolution for hesitant band mates, which is indicative of their broader mission. For these girls to really rock, they need to feel plugged-in and empowered.

Girls Rock! acknowledges all this hard work, but also exudes the sheer joy and release of playing loud and proud, without worrying that it has to be perfect, or even pretty.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 & 9:30 p.m., on Friday, June 27, and Saturday, June 28, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 29. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to


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