Apart from the camp’s mission of coaxing girls ages 8 to 18 to form bands, learn to play instruments, write original music and perform onstage (all in one week!), the documentary reveals the less-obvious lessons the camp tries to impart. Through individual leadership of each camper band, female musicians teach the girls how to play music, get along with one another, accept themselves and be more confident. Facilitating these types of lessons outside of the band environment are classes on self-defense, as well as group discussion about issues like body image. In addition, campers attend lunchtime performances from bands like The Gossip as evidence that…well, that girls can rock as hard as dudes.
The film focuses on the experiences of four campers of all ages and backgrounds. The youngest (and most adorable), Palace is evidence of what the camp can offer girls who lack interior identity and who believe that superficial beauty is of primary importance. While it’s difficult to believe someone that young could’ve imbibed such wrongheaded cultural queues, the movie reveals that it’s an absolute with Palace.
When she’s being interviewed about image, she claims, “It’s not important what you look like on the outside. It’s only important that… ” The fact that she can’t remember the last bit of truism is scary and illuminating. This theme reasserts itself with the desperate-for-attention, metal-head Laura as she talks about her self-loathing. With teenage Misty and the spastic Amelia, issues of girl infighting are explored as they try and fail to get along with the girls in their bands and in their daily lives.
While the film shows you everything the girls get out of going to the camp, it also brings up more questions than can be addressed in 90 minutes. Certainly the camp can plant seeds of positivity, but how can a week out of the year combat the onslaught of negativity surrounding girl culture? “Better than not trying at all,” is the obvious answer.
Another problem that no documentary can escape is the obtrusiveness of being filmed. A kind of reverse Hawthorne effect seems to take shape for some of the girls. During the final showcase of their work, it becomes apparent that the bands that were filmed just aren’t as good as some others. Obviously this isn’t the whole point of the camp, but one wonders if something was lost in their learning experience because they were under a microscope. Notable exceptions exist, though. The newfound confidence exhibited by Laura as she belts out her song with vibrato is remarkable. Misty also turns out to be a pretty good bassist as well. Despite their individual progress, however, their bands’ songs just aren’t as cohesive as some others.
The only other thing that’s slightly distracting are the scenes in which statistics about women’s issues (such as how only 22% of performance artists are female) are presented. While the audience is being educated, there are cartoon montages scored by rock songs that look and feel a little false and forced. The filmmakers were admirably attempting to make these sections less boring by offering a completely different aesthetic. However, the shift between regular documentary footage and these montages can be a little jarring.
Considering the camp is led by indie-rockers like Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, it’s obvious that the soundtrack needed to be impressive. Here, the movie’s ambitiousness is rewarding, including original music by quality acts like The Blow. These songs are featured more prominently in the montage sequences, which is as laudable as the important statistics used to make more meaningful statements. Therefore, these points can be weighed against the aesthetic choices in the scenes and offset any negativity felt by viewers about them.
Didactic messages aside, Girls Rock is a really enjoyable film for moments like Palace yelling the lyrics, “San Francisco sucks sometimes/go to hell on the Golden Gate.” This blended with the film’s intention of focusing on answering the question “why girls?” makes it well worth watching. Seeing how the camp evolved from a sociological experiment of sorts to a safe environment for girls to learn and have fun in is enough to make everyone wish they’d gone to rock camp.