I don't know if I have ever seen a greater collection of girls in one sitting then I did when I went to see Girls Rock! Even more importantly, I can't remember the last time I saw a film, or television show for that matter, and was inspired and energized by the females on the screen. Surprisingly, this comes from the hands of a couple of men -- Arne Johnson and Shane King. Yet it doesn't really matter, because they understand their subject perfectly. With the driving sounds of notable female rockers from Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon to Veruca Salt, the documentary is an intensely intimate, yet respectful, portrait of the pressures and releases of a group of dynamic young women.
The premise is simple – follow a group of girls ranging in age from 8-18 who are partaking in a one-week rock camp – one run by the likes of Sleater Kinney and other notable female bands. The campers embody every type of look, personality and even musical background, and they come together for a week to create a band, learn their role in it, write a song and perform it at a showcase. The film focuses on a few girls in particular, who are epically memorable and varied – Amelia, the insanely exuberant rocker girl, Misty, a green bassist who is working her way out of a troubled past, Palace, the toughest 8-year-old on record and Laura, a Korean 15-year-old with a deep love for heavy metal. While it would be easy for the film to become chokingly saccharine with the cuteness of the girls on-screen, one of the documentary's biggest achievements is that it manages to balance cuteness and substance. Sure, it's hard not to melt when Palace grabs the mic and screams her angst-filled lyrics -- words, she says, that come from the things in her mind that she finds "amusing." But it also spends time discussing the troublesome undercurrent existing in the young girls' worlds.
This environment is covered well without being heavy-handed. Shots from the camp are broken up with music-video-like montages that give truly sad statistics about young women in the U.S. They start off amusingly enough – talking about the "diabolical threat" to young women that is Britney Spears, but proceed to include statistics that aren't so funny. The numbers show that girls are suffering. They are trying to morph and sexualize their bodies at an increasingly younger age, and they're wrought with self-doubt and disparaging thoughts. More disturbing than the statistics themselves is seeing the findings manifest within the girls at the camp. In one interview, Laura says with a wry smile: "I just accept that I hate myself."
These girls obviously have many layers to work through, much more than can be dealt within a week. But the camp does what it can, trying to help the girls "address the feelings of inadequacy, self-consciousness and low self-esteem" that they feel. Intermingled with music lessons and band meetings, the campers attend workshops on subjects like "body oppression," which teach the girls how to stop internalizing their struggles and feel accepted and strong enough to speak their minds. As they start to feel this, you can see them, in a sense, snapping out of their silence. Their comfort and pride in themselves increases, and it inspires the girls to Rock... Hard.
We can all hypothesize about what media does to kids, and what sort of girls and boys we're molding, but we can't deny that these great girls are feeling pressured to be what they're not, and are just itching to express themselves. With this chance to, it's staggering how much they can accomplish. Green musicians like Misty learn instruments in a few days. The young tykes whip up lyrics like Amelia's "How do you tune a taco? I don't know!" in an instant. By the end of the week, they're performing some pretty impressive tunes. It's hard to stomach that these are the same girls that question their worth, but you can't help but smile and applaud at an organization and film that show how great each and everyone one of them are, and try to inspire them to make the most of themselves and their lives.