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Originally published March 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 7, 2008 at 5:38 PM

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Movie review

Girls face the music in "Girls Rock!"

A determined-looking 8-year-old named Palace, when handed a microphone, lets loose with a rock 'n' roll scream that could peel paint off...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Girls Rock!," a documentary by Shane King and Arne Johnson. 90 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and language. SIFF Cinema, through Thursday.

Co-director Johnson is scheduled to attend screenings Tuesday and Wednesday. Portland Rock 'n' Roll camper Marissa Lytle, a 16-year-old from Everett, will do a Q&A after Saturday's 12:30 p.m. screening.

A determined-looking 8-year-old named Palace, when handed a microphone, lets loose with a rock 'n' roll scream that could peel paint off a wall and stick it back on again. And then she smiles sweetly, in the way that little girls do.

Let's just say this up front: Yes, much of "Girls Rock!," the cheerfully raucous documentary co-directed by Shane King and Arne Johnson, is pretty cute. But this tale of a group of girls at a Portland rock 'n' roll summer camp is not at all about cuteness, or really even about music: It's about female empowerment, and about giving girls — at a crucial time in their development — the space they need to be themselves.

Much has been written about what happens to girls in our culture, beginning somewhere around Palace's age and continuing through adolescence: anxiety about self-esteem, body image, "mean girls," popularity, how to behave around boys, how to express anger. The Portland Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, an all-female environment for girls ages 8-18, is on its surface a music camp, but it deliberately addresses these issues by creating a community in which girls can talk about their problems and share solutions. In the film, a counselor gets teary as she explains, "They teach girls how to treat other girls."

King and Johnson focus their film on four girls at the camp, of varying ages and backgrounds: Palace, whose cuteness and confidence masks some complicated issues within (her parents are divorced and her brother disabled); fellow 8-year-old Amelia, a guitarist who follows her own unique beat; 15-year-old Laura, an ever-smiling teen who loves death metal; and 17-year-old Misty, a bass player whose troubled life has included drug addiction and homelessness. These girls are not angelic, and the camp is no idyll: We watch the girls struggle to communicate, and some feuding takes place within the bands they form.

But the film's greatest pleasure is watching the girls' creativity and joy emerge. Palace, Amelia, Laura and Misty don't leave rock camp with all their problems solved, but all of them (particularly Laura) seem to find a new understanding of their own potential. The girls translate their anxieties into song (one of Palace's lyrics: "San Francisco sucks sometimes / I don't want to go there again with my mom on her business trip") or into a wailing guitar chord.

"Girls Rock!" happily pulls off the trick of being both entertaining and moving; grown-up girls may well watch with an occasional tear as we see the campers subtly transform. (Bring your daughters to this movie — and discuss it with them afterward.) The counselors, too, emerge as unsung heros: At the end of the film, one describes the exhilaration of seeing the girls at the camp's final concert, and how the girls are so astonished that they were able to pull off the feat. "I feel like the Wizard of Oz," the counselor says, telling the campers that really, it was inside them all along. All of them were rock stars; they just needed a little help — and space — to shine.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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