Will Burton can't catch a break. The nerdy, fatherless teen is down on school, harassed by bullies and forced to bear a painful nickname (left unexplained until late in the film). His comfort food? Rock music and its rich history. Punk. Ska. Progressive. Alt rock. Will knows the sonic lineage of U2 and The Killers better than he knows his own family tree. And the only thing stronger than his ear for a shrill chord or perfectly chunky guitar riff is his adoration of rocker David Bowie, to whom he journals his angst in letters that get no reply.
Then a sudden job change moves Will and his loving mom from Ohio to New Jersey. And the prospect of a fresh start invigorates him like a classic Ziggy Stardust solo.
Once in the land of Springsteen, Will still feels like an outsider, but manages to connect with a brooding girl named Sa5m ("The 5 is silent," she tells him), who becomes his partner for a class project. He's also befriended by Charlotte, an ex-cheerleader whose ailing dad inspired her to dump the whole "queen bee" bit—an elitist lifestyle that included singing with popular local band Glory Dogs and dating its narcissistic frontman, Ben.
Now Charlotte has her own garage band, and believes that Will's keen ear can help them improve enough to compete against Glory Dogs in a regional battle of the bands. How big is Bandslam? According to Sa5m, "Texas high school football big." After all, the winner gets a record deal.
The prevailing theme is that, like a gale-force wind impacting a glider, a difficult past can either knock us out of the sky or—if we position ourselves just right—help us soar to new heights. Will, Sa5m and Charlotte are all broken to some degree. From mistakes. From a crushing disappointment. In one case, haunted by the sins of a parent. But at key moments, each of those teens manages to rise above fear and pain by unselfishly choosing to stare down personal demons for the benefit of others. The "happy ending" isn't happy because everyone gets what they want in fairy tale fashion, but because they've grown as individuals and united as a community.
Will takes his role as band manager seriously. He pulls together peers who couldn't be more different, yet gets them to work together for the good of a group that expands to include a horn section, cellist and classical pianist. He encourages musical self-expression, not for its own sake but as a means of serving the creative objectives of the whole.
Being forced to improvise just moments before taking the stage brings out the best in Will's band, especially Sa5m, who really comes out of her shell. Will is kind to beleaguered peers. And he volunteers to work with little children (as does Charlotte).
After hurting others' feelings, teens go out of their way to apologize, sometimes in elaborate, creative ways. Will's mother is his biggest fan, encouraging him with comments such as, "You are not the problem. You are terrific." Charlotte thanks Will for his decency and for making her a better person. Played over the end credits, "Where Are You Now" thanks supporters and naysayers alike for turning the singer into the man he has become.
A girl's skewed theology finds her bargaining with "God, the universe, anyone who'd listen." Worried that a careless comment could jinx her, she shouts, "Take it back! I don't like putting something like that to the universe." After doing a kind deed, she says to herself excitedly, "I am so going to heaven," falsely suggesting that salvation comes from doing good. An isolated music lyric seems to convey sympathy for the devil. (The context is unclear.) Will butters up a musician by telling him, "Inside, you're this golden god."
Charlotte climbs through Will's bedroom window to talk with him, only to have Will's mom walk in and find her tickling him on his bed. (Mom deems their behavior inappropriate and breaks things up.) Elsewhere, Charlotte instructs Will on how to kiss a girl, letting him practice on her. Will and Sa5m share tender kisses. An anonymous couple is seen kissing passionately. While not explicitly sexual, Charlotte belts out the Cheap Trick hit "I Want You to Want Me."
Will lies to recruit a young drummer drawn to a photo of his mother. He tells the guy that she's his sister, and Mom reluctantly plays along at one point by lowering her neckline a bit. Sufficiently fooled, the drummer plants a celebratory kiss on her.
Bullying involves Will being shoved and having a drink poured on his head.
Crude or Profane Language
Some name-calling and the use of such coarse expressions as "sucks," "screw them over," "rip me a new one" and the British profanity "bloody." There are four or five exclamatory uses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The teens visit a club to check out a rival band, but are not shown drinking. A somber recollection conveys the dangers of drinking and driving.
Other Negative Elements
Will and Sa5m sneak into a locked building. Sa5m fails to qualify this advice to Will: "Always do the thing that scares you." Charlotte refuses to use her turn signals when driving.
Most of the music featured is easy on the ears, but the bands esteemed by Will and others include The Killers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground and David Bowie. Similarly, Sa5m notes that her favorite movie of all time is the violent horror flick Evil Dead 2.
If the boisterous bunch of teens who sat around me in the theater is any indication, Bandslam could be the sleeper hit of the summer. Playful music, accompanied by unexpected and satisfying plot turns are a few of the film's plusses.
Here's another: Coming-of-age stories about rock-loving adolescents—from Footloose to Almost Famous—usually highlight rock 'n' roll's rebellious roots. Not this one. Aside from their already mentioned lack of discernment, these protagonists are decent, mature kids packing moral compasses.
And restraint is just part of the picture. Bandslam scores big points for making big points about forgiveness, cooperation, healthy diversity and refusing to be defined by our scars.