The last film I saw in 2012, and one I enjoyed so much I immediately went and ordered the Blu-ray from the USA where it had already been released, is this campus comedy tapping in to the (presumably burgeoning) activity of collegiate a cappella singing. And yes, although that’s the kind of thing that TV series Glee does, this film feels far more fresh and interesting.
I admit I have next to no interest in the subject matter per se, but as ever the nominal subject is just the euphonious background to a drama of fitting in. Anna Kendrick plays outsider Beca, arriving for her first day at leafy liberal arts university Barden. We are introduced to her outside an airport terminal, wrapped up in her own little world of mixes and mash-ups, headphones on, wearing heavy eyeliner and a stand-offish attitude to everything, especially other students. However, her lecturer dad offers her an ultimatum: he’ll let her pursue her music production dreams if she gets involved in student life, leading her to cautiously nose around the student fair, where she meets uptight blonde Aubrey (Anna Camp) and the more relaxed Chloe (Brittany Snow), who run the Barden Bellas, the only all-woman a cappella society on campus.
In truth, the way the plot unfolds hardly challenges any expectations, but it’s the film’s fondness for its characters that’s more interesting. Aubrey and Chloe’s tug-of-war over the group’s leadership runs throughout the film, but the standout is Australian actress Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat’ Amy (her name for herself), who it’s clear has improvised a lot of her dialogue. You can tell both because of the extensive outtakes of her ad-libs on the DVD extras, but also because of the way the other actors react around her: there’s a nice scene at an a cappella society social mixer where Anna Camp can do little more than just grin and nod awkwardly as Wilson makes outrageous (and slightly insensitive) jokes, while on a bus ride, Wilson’s comedic pauses in explaining why she has the phone number of their male nemesis Bumper is accompanied by Kendrick discreetly cracking up in the background. It shows a generosity towards the improvisational nature of good comedy that the filmmakers have left these little puncturing moments in the film.
There are, though, plenty of other comic highlights, whether the previously mentioned Bumper, egotistical dictator over the Barden Treblemakers, played with brittle self-mocking humour by Adam DeVine, the bitterly sarcastic championship commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, or Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), a Japanese girl who speaks in a barely-audible whisper and manages to use the resultant extreme close-ups of her lips to great effect. Alongside these strong characters, Skylar Astin’s Jesse makes for a blandly unaffecting male romantic lead, though his story sets up the many Breakfast Club references.
The plot may not take any risks, but the focus on the women’s group with its strong characters is refreshing, and it’s their characters that really make the film. And though I didn’t know much about the world of a cappella singing, the many stage performances are delightful to watch — they may not be overtly comedic, but there’s definitely an underlying ridiculousness to the undertaking that the film is very aware of, without being in any way nasty about it (the appearance of the older Tonehangers is a particular stand-out). It has proved to be a film I’ve enjoyed watching on many occasions already this past year. Quite whether it stands the test of time will be interesting, but for now, this is one of the best teen films out there.
Director Jason Moore; Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin); Cinematographer Julio Macat; Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2012 (and also on Blu-ray at home on numerous occasions, and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Saturday 27 July 2013).