Film

Too Cool for School

Attending Class at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls

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I would love to pretend that as a little girl I was exactly like Palace: A delicate, eight-year-old redhead with style to burn and the emotional intensity of Franny Glass. But in reality, I was the little girl who threw up all over herself playing kickball on the first day of the third grade and had no idea that turquoise culottes were not, in fact, totally awesome. In other words, I was the sort of girl who desperately needed a Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. And also maybe some Dramamine in my Capri Sun.

Palace is one of the most noteworthy individuals in Girls Rock!, Shane King and Arne Johnson's documentary about Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls—a musical finishing school that's less about keeping your ankles crossed and more about telling the world to suck it. King and Johnson have been friends since seventh grade, when they used a five-dollar 8mm camera King purchased at a Goodwill in SE Portland to shoot Cala 'n' Ala Honeybaked, a short, Bergmanesque film about (what else?) teen angst. Their first film together since then, Girls Rock! documents Palace and three other young ladies—Laura, Misty, and Amelia—as they're taught to channel their inner Lennon/McCartneys and compose an original song to perform. (And even though the end product sometimes turns out to be a bit more Eastman/McCartney, the results aren't necessarily bad. I love you, Wings!) In fact, the camp's philosophy seems to be that nothing is ever really bad—so long as the girls emerge with a bit more personal insight.

Camp counselors like Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and the Gossip's Beth Ditto teach the girls to scream, sweat, and, possibly, make wicked hash brownies. (Okay, calm down. Not really on the hash brownies.) All the girls here are in grave need of some lessons in societal non-conformity, and Palace, in particular, seems to radiate an inner rage beneath her ice princess exterior. "All of [Palace's] day is very regimented," Johnson says. "She does ballet, she does karate, she goes to Japanese immersion school—so much of her time is spent sitting down, being quiet, and being in control. So she had this dual thing going on, where it seemed as though the intellectual part of how she worked was trying to shape [her] band into something amazing, and the part of her that was being released by rock 'n' roll allowed her to go crazy." In the process of going crazy, Palace upsets a few people (namely, her band)—which, once again, is totally fine. It's just one more way for the camp to teach girls to become people first, and examine gender roles second. (Or third, or fourth, or never.)

Making a documentary where the possible message could be interpreted as mere "girl power!" wasn't King and Johnson's objective. "It became impossible to create that kind of movie when you are looking these girls in the eye and they're telling you true, compelling stories about their lives," Johnson says. "You can't sell them out like that. One of the things the camp was trying to do was remove that shallow idea of 'girl power' and elevate it to something only you, as a young woman, can truly define—which has nothing to do with a T-shirt, or some kind of fist raised in the air like a cartoon."

Indeed, by deconstructing the now-clichéd "girl power" idea—which has become wholly embarrassing over the years—and building it back up into something meaningful, Girls Rock! succeeds as both a documentary and entertainment. And to be fair, it also succeeds thanks to all those scenes with Palace—mainly because she, unlike me, could totally pull off turquoise culottes.

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