The Disney Channel's High School Musical series has never been as generic or as bland as its name implies. Sure, all three installments of this wildly successful franchise are set in an ultra-hygienic, sun-kissed learning funplex where classes last five minutes, pep fests draw thousands of enthusiastic students, the drama kids get the best seats in the cafeteria, and everyone is pretty, reasonably well-adjusted, and likely to burst into song at any moment. But let's face it: No matter what you thought of your own high school experience, High School Musical's idyllic fantasyland is a much more pleasant place than the grubby, cynical, supposedly authentic teenage world of Superbad or Sex Drive.
Besides, attention should be paid to any series clever enough to name a character after the evil Puritan magistrate in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible (the uninspired reading and discussion of which is a widespread high school ritual all its own) and structure its catchiest musical number around the dangers of defying an artificial social order. But I was more than a little stunned by the conceptual and artistic merits of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, which — impossibly, gloriously — contains some of the year's most exciting and emotionally resonant sequences.
HSM 3 begins in chaos. Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), point guard of the softest, most well-choreographed basketball team in New Mexico history, is in trouble: His East High team is getting destroyed by West High in the championship game. Meanwhile, the other pressures of senior year loom for Troy and his pals on and off the court: graduation, college, separation from the womb of public education, and, of course, the successful production of cell-phone-obsessed drama teacher Mrs. Darbus' spring musical.
Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) ameliorates this teenage uncertainty through art therapy: She instructs her gifted teen composer (Olesya Rulin, a butch Radar O'Reilly) and choreographer (Lucas Grabeel, impeccably sweatered and not-so-secretly trapped in the closet) to write and stage a meta-play about the student body's hopes, dreams, and fears. As a result, the numerous musical numbers drift between fantasy and reality, evoking a state of dream-like delirium.
The film's handling of teenage love and lust is absurdly chaste but nonetheless refreshing. Only super-pimps would feed their lady chocolate-covered strawberries, but only High School Musical's stars would finish this meal with discreet kisses on the cheek. Instead of focusing on the free-floating sexual hunger endemic to more "adult" teenage fare, though, the film explores deeper and pricklier questions about adolescent identity.
This emphasis on the twin pressures of parental expectations and individual soul-searching adds necessary weight to the thin storyline. And these internal conflicts are clarified by the much-improved cinematography. I hated the over-bright TV-movie look of the previous films; every shadowless face and body seemed lit by several maximum-security prison-yard spotlights. The visuals in HSM 3 are more nuanced while embracing a vibrant color palate of pinks, reds, lavenders, and whites.
The two revelatory numbers involve the two marquee stars, Troy and his stalwart sweetheart Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens). Hudgens' musical number limns the emotional sorrow of a peripatetic teen; she sings her goodbyes to her man and her community as the pictures on the walls vanish behind her. Efron's solo epiphany occurs as he survives a hailstorm of basketballs in the gym and stalks the halls in search of his true self. These two scenes, as well as the bittersweet, schizophrenic showstopper, are riveting tweener psychodrama precisely because they are so unexpected. For a few minutes, anyway, these wooden idols become real boys and girls.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year