I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On is the name of the bubblegum rock group at the center of Bandslam, as well as a useful mantra for any moviegoer struggling to make it all the way through this depressingly phony approximation of a teen tragicomedy. Authenticity itself seems to have become unfashionable at the New Jersey high school that serves as a backdrop for this simplistic story of struggling bandmates, as evidenced by the cellist who speaks the Elvish language in conversation, the guitarist who feigns an English accent out of some cultish devotion to all things British, and the whole personality of reluctant singer Sa5m (“The five is silent”), a Fox Searchlight-ready cutesy malcontent played by High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens. Immediately drawn to Sa5m is Will (Gaelan Connell), a new arrival from out of town (with nagging mom Lisa Kudrow in tow) and supposed musical know-it-all whose area of expertise seems contained to CBGB-launched punk bands like Bad Brains and whose creepy habit of firing off heartfelt emails that always begin with “Dear David Bowie” makes him seem more a demented stalker than music nerd.
Needless to say, all social activity at this unlikely school revolves around the titular battle of the bands (“The winner gets a record contract!”) and a polished, incumbent winner group called Glory Dogs stands ready to defend the prize from any upstart competitors. Determined to dethrone Glory Dogs is the cheerleader ex-girlfriend of one of its members, fledgling singer-songwriter Charlotte (Aly Michalka), who allows Will to quickly talk her out of the lean garage-rock covers of Cheap Trick songs that serve her well and steer her toward a bloated, Arcade Fire-sized arrangement with a full horn section, keyboard, and three screaming guitars. The results, which could be described as Disney Channel ska, are terrible, though the movie insists that they are self-evidently wonderful. Thankfully, full-length musical numbers in Bandslam are relatively infrequent and Michalka’s voice and stage presence as a frontwoman are passable.
Taking a page from John Hughes, director Todd Graff eschews easy comedic setups in favor of earnest attempts at plumbing the depths of teenhood, with the staging of halting, embarrassed sexual encounters, including one tolerably sweet moment between Will and Charlotte, moments of connection-making over pop iconography, such as when Will leads Sa5m to the dilapidated storefront of the defunct CBGB, and tests of those tenuous connections through emotional betrayals and my-past-is-scarier-than-yours revelations. Two of the teens even have tragic father stories to roll out at emotionally pregnant moments, though any potential resonance is drowned by the over-stylized sitcom reality in which these characters exist. Graff seems unreasonably certain that his tender moments and his uninhibited wackiness can coexist harmoniously, though the reality is that his emotional punches pack all the force of a typical Saved by the Bell episode’s dramatic climax.
Further dampening the viewer’s sympathies is the shitty, hugely unsatisfying way one character is treated by cohorts in the wake of a late emotional trauma; the inescapable conclusion is that most of these kids are heartless creeps and undeserving of any success. They’re certainly unworthy of the generosity of the craggy-faced benefactor who absurdly turns up just before the final credits to sprinkle some, err, stardust on the band.