Not just for teens

Latest Disney Channel Original Movie offers ample dumb fun

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” We should be able to pop in a Demi Lovato album, DVR the latest episode of “Pretty Little Liars” and marvel at Sandra Bullock’s performance in “All About Steve” without so much as an ounce of shame. After all, who cares what the critics and culture snobs say? I’ll take “She’s the Man” instead of “An Inconvenient Truth” anyday.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and even those of us who pretend to be film or music critics cannot escape social stigma and judgment when we plunge into the depths of bargain DVD racks and Netflix Instant Queues for a quick fix of mindless fun. I was forced to confront this sad reality as I, a 22-year-old male, sat down with my two younger sisters to take in “Teen Beach Movie,” the latest Disney Channel Original Movie — or “DCOM,” as the tweenage in-crowd likes to say. Needless to say, I expected to hate the film, or at least to write it off as a cliché-ridden mess of autotuned vocal performances and clean-cut teenage up-and-comers. I was wrong — or, at least, partially wrong.

“Teen Beach Movie” tells the tale of Brady (Ross Lynch) and McKenzie (Maia Mitchell), two star-crossed teens with a passion for surfing and shenanigans. As “Mack” prepares to be whisked off to prep school to make her late mother proud and to please her uptight aunt, Brady mourns the impending loss of his summer fling. In an unpredictable twist of fate, however, a massive tidal wave sends the unsuspecting youngsters into the world of “Wet Side Story,” a 1960s-era musical movie in which a “Romeo and Juliet”-esque love story emerges amid a seemingly innocuous “gang-war” between bikers and surfers.

Naturally, Brady’s and Mack’s arrival shakes up the social scene and, at least for a time, prevents shallow surfer Tanner (Garrett Clayton), the Romeo figure, from falling for his Juliet, biker-girl Lela (Grace Phipps). From there, friendships are challenged, love is lost and found, and family movie tropes abound. And somehow, it all kind of works.

To be fair, when “Teen Beach Movie” tries to be smart, it fails miserably. One subplot, for instance, finds the plucky Mack attempting to instill feminist ideals and progressive values in the relatively old-fashioned Lela and the rest of her cohort. With lines like “Girls can do anything boys can do,” this through-line proves more nauseating than empowering, despite strong performances by Mitchell and Phipps, who sing, dance and act with impressive energy and humor.

Across the board, the cast and songs save this film from falling overboard. Lynch and Mitchell lack on-screen chemistry, and Clayton and Phipps have little or nothing to work with when it comes to character depth and development, but all four leads ooze charisma, and the supporting ensemble proves effective at mugging for the camera.

As far as musical numbers go, “Teen Beach Movie” packs a surprising punch. From belty doo-wop ballads to beach-front choral numbers, each song is more catchy and upbeat than the last. As long as you have a high tolerance for cheese and camp, the soundtrack will remain ingrained in your mind for days, even as you attempt to write marathon-length term papers and study for final exams. If only it were socially acceptable to do so, I would likely walk around Grounds belting out “Meant to Be,” “Can’t Stop Singing” and “Falling for Ya” for weeks.

Too often, film-makers feel the need to make powerful statements and to force viewers to think about some greater social problem. But sometimes I want to turn on the tube and turn my brain off for 90 minutes, and Disney Channel has never failed in helping me to do so.

“Teen Beach Movie” is uninventive, but it is also undeniably fun. With intriguing choreography, terrific songs, chuckle-worthy in-jokes, an easily digestible storyline, and, perhaps most importantly, an agreeably nice-looking and clean-cut cast, this over-the-top production somehow managed to blow me away, even as it drained my brain cells. Having seen more DCOMs than I care to admit, I can honestly say that this one is among the best.

Published December 2, 2013 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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