The tender heart of the slight, gawky, melodramatic indie drama Camp beats most joyfully during a scene in a school bus en route to Camp Ovation, the fictionalized summer workshop for theater-mad teenagers based on a real camp attended by filmmaker Todd Graff. Freed from the tyranny of everyone who doesn't understand them back home, the young people heading off to their fairy-tale summer hit the road singing, as busloads of campers often do. Except that this lot belts out sophisticated lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, not pop tunes by Britney Spears.
There's layered meaning to the title, since the very nature of the place attracts troupers -- many of them gay boys just getting the hang of their own sexuality, some of them divas disguised as nerd girls -- who never settle for the understated gesture when the flamboyant will do. Indeed, every character has a campy personal drama fueling his or her budding talent, including the sensitive drag queen (Robin de Jesus), the overweight girl (Tiffany Taylor), the seemingly perfect straight boy (Daniel Letterle), and the alcoholic, aging, one-hit-musical-writing wonder (Don Dixon) hired to mold Camp Ovation's eager kids into bitter professionals just like him. (The actors are themselves unknown musical-theater hopefuls.)
The sum is no greater than the ''Fame''-style saga of any one of them, and Graff, an actor and screenwriter making his directing debut, is less successful at developing each story than at conveying his general affection for the curtain-call species. Still, it's wonderful little freaks like the kids at Camp Ovation on whom the American musical theater pins its future, and Graff offers a handful of them a nice moment in the spotlight.