For the past seven years, a group of former "riot grrrls" and other distaff members of the Portland punk community have hosted a summer program called The Rock 'N' Roll Camp For Girls. Regardless of whether they have any musical talent, kids aged 8 to 18 are encouraged to pick up an instrument, form a band, write a song, and play a show—all in about a week. They also learn self-defense, sisterly bonding, and the confidence to make a spectacle of themselves without worrying about being judged on their appearance or competence.
Shane King and Arne Johnson's documentary Girls Rock! follows four of those campers: Misty, an at-risk teen who signed up for the camp as a "step-down program" from her group home; Laura, a bubbly death-metal fiend who can't get a word in edgewise with her band back home; Palace, a fashion-conscious, take-charge 8-year-old who's written a song called "My Brother Was Meant To Be," about her younger brother's Down's Syndrome; and Amelia, a social misfit who prefers to stay in her room with her daisy-shaped guitar and write an atonal song-cycle about her dog.
King and Johnson betray their unconventional subjects some by making a film that falls into a lot of the traps of contemporary documentaries. Girls Rock! is cutesy and quick-cut, emphasizing the absurd while trying to keep the audience's interest with animated interludes and footage from corny old industrial films. They've also dropped in unnecessary statistics about women's troubles with self-esteem, relative to men's—as though the audience needed to be reassured that what The Rock 'N' Roll Camp For Girls does is important.
Frankly, the scenes of these girls trying to work together and share ideas are enough to make the movie's point. It's hard for anyone to work collaboratively, regardless of age or gender, but there's something telling about the way one of Girls Rock!'s teen drummers doesn't want to play unless everyone in the room looks away from her, because she's too embarrassed. In one of the film's few smart uses of montage, King and Johnson contrast the glammed-up, sexualized image of young women on MTV with the very real, unique girls who've come to the camp. But that outrage is also implicit in the existence of the camp itself, and how it helps its attendees grow. As Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein says, regarding the first time these girls step up to a microphone, "You can't underestimate how it feels it have your voice echo through a room."