We return from our commercial break to find Chad harassing Troy in the library. Like Coach Bolton before him, he has decided to skip the best point he could possibly make — that Troy needs to live up to his role as team captain — and instead blame Gabriella for Troy’s bizarre new ambition. His basic argument: basketball leads to stardom, while musical theater leads to irrelevance. Yes, I’m sure that a skinny, undersized white point guard from New Mexico has a real chance to end up on a Wheaties box someday. Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Troy Bolton.
(Sidenote: Chad’s bumbling attempts to redeem Troy are constantly interrupted by the annoying “comic-relief” librarian Ms. Falstaff. Yes, in a bid to burnish this movie’s Shakespeare credentials, Barsocchini decided to reference the Bard’s best comic character — a cowardly yet noble scoundrel who dominates all three of his plays — by giving his name to a Spring-Loaded Librarian who gets two lines and twenty seconds of screentime. Weep not, sweet Troy; for trickling tears are vain.)
But the most important thing to note here is not Chad’s ludicrous line of argument, or his terrible dialogue. (Here, in the span of thirty seconds, we get the phrases “elevated-IQ temptress girl,” “hoops dude,” and “musical singer person,” brought to you by the mind earlier responsible for “freaky callback boy” and “hottie superbomb.” It’s great how Peter Barsocchini thinks he’s really got 21st-century American teen patois nailed down…and it’s even greater how tragically wrong he is about that.) No, the vital point here is Chad’s stated motivation. He actually sees himself as playing the role of protector. In fact, he even calls himself Troy’s “most loyal best friend.”
I want you to chew on that idea for a second. Chad Danforth is just looking out for Troy.
That’s why, in the very next scene, Chad (flanked by Jason and Zeke) finds Taylor to speak with her about sabotaging Troy and Gabriella. Not destroying their chance at the callbacks — actually killing their nascent relationship. Because that’s how friends treat each other. Do me a favor, Mr. Danforth. Don’t ever do me any favors. And the same for you, Miss McKessie.
All of this is observed by Ryan and Sharpay, standing in plain sight in the doorway looking like refugees from post-Mod Europe. (Seriously, the leather driving cap, and the fur-collar Sherpa vest, and all that tan and orange and ivory? 70’s Italy called to say they want their everything back.) Of course, because they can’t hear the conspirators, they assume that the clandestine meeting is actually meant to aid Troy and Gabriella.
Ryan offers up some truly lame social pseudo-commentary to the effect that a victory for our lovers would mean the ultimate triumph of the jocks over all facets of school life, and Sharpay once again resolves to do something about the situation — lest the nerds somehow achieve a social status equal to or greater than her own. Then they pop back into the sparkly depths from whence they came. Oh, and no, this moment doesn’t pay off later.
Sigh. You know, it’s really hard to watch a movie where the villains constantly undermine themselves with their own machinations. As things stand now, if the Siblings Evans would just steer clear, everything would probably work out for them. Benedict Arnold and Tokyo Rose are unwittingly playing right into their jazz-hands.
About that — you may think I’m exaggerating. “Sure, Chad and Taylor want to stop the auditions,” you say, “but they can’t want to stomp on their friends’ happiness.” That’s fine. I appreciate your skepticism. Give me just a minute to outline the plan. I’ll let you be the judge.
Step One is a rendezvous the next morning in front of the school before classes start, so Taylor can hand Chad a laptop and a webcam. This should be a simple exchange, but Chad insists on complicating it. He skulks about as if hoping to be seen. He tries to make sure his watches (yes, that’s multiple) are synchronized with Taylor’s — “7:45 Mountain Standard Time,” as if Taylor would be living by Mumbai’s clock or something. And when Taylor calls him out on his silliness by saying “we’re not Charlie’s Angels,” his response is: “I can dream, can’t I?” How very…interesting. Because Charlie never did fieldwork, you see. He left that to his lady operatives. Our young Mr. Danforth is nothing more, nor less, than an aspiring Cheryl Lad. (Burn!) Or is that Cheryl Chad? (Oooh, the coveted double burn!)
Step Two is set to go off at lunch. Troy, wandering through the locker room, finds his teammates — and the “come to Jesus” revival they’ve arranged for his benefit. By showing Troy photographs of former Wildcat legends and describing their accomplishments, they make their point about his lack of focus in the most ham-handed manner possible.* So when Troy tries to brush them off by claiming he’s not the only guy on the team, I’m sympathetic to his perspective. Of course, he hasn’t been dialed in on his responsibilities, and he should have been. That doesn’t excuse his teammates’ douchebaggery, though. Especially not when their last photo is of Troy’s dad as an East High player. Now that is a sucker punch Zack Snyder can only dream of.[*Even worse, they’ve managed to confuse me again. Now they’re talking about the “league championship game.” I’ve never heard the term “league” associated with high school athletics, except in the private-school or statewide sense. And no private school is as well-funded as East High seems to be. So does that mean the Wildcats are playing in the state championship game after all? Not the district playoffs? C’mon guys, I thought we’d settled this.]
Meanwhile, Gabriella is facing her own version of the same talk, courtesy of Taylor and her Scholastic Decathlon teammates. Their pitch? Troy Bolton represents all that’s worst and most aggressive about humanity, while they reach towards the heights to which womankind can and should aspire. Not mankind. Womankind. Not a single man is on Taylor’s list of people that embody “the side of education and accomplishment.” But you know who is? Oprah Winfrey.
Look, not all contributors to the betterment of the human race were men, obviously. But if you’re trying to list major historical figures in order to pitch Gabi on ditching Troy for the life of the mind, I would lean on Einstein and Lincoln and Mozart…and yes, Shakespeare…way before I leaned on Oprah. Just sayin’. What’s more intellectual, “E=mc2” or “You get a car, you get a car, you get a car…” (And yes, I know it’s supposed to be a joke. But it’s stepping on an important plot moment. As such, it’s more out of place than — well, than Oprah at a MENSA meeting.)
You have to give both our leads credit, though. They’re weathering the peer pressure. Troy looks a bit exasperated, whereas Gabriella seems more amused than anything else. But then, we’ve just reached the threshold of Step Three. Here goes:
Troy, having had enough of being pushed around, decides to turn the tables and talk about how he thought his teammates were…well, his teammates. So Chad interrupts to ask him about “the girl, and the singing” — all while not-so-surreptitiously opening Taylor’s laptop, right in front of El Capitan. As Troy begins his answer, one of the other players mounts the webcam on top of the screen. I’ll say it again. This is happening right in front of Troy, who is so wrapped up in his own personal Saint Crispin’s Day speech that he somehow fails to notice. And so it is that his little speech gets broadcast to another laptop that Taylor set up for Gabriella’s benefit. Let me quote:
TROY: “The singing thing is nothing. Probably just a way to keep my nerves down, I don’t know, it means nothing to me. You’re my guys, and this is our team. Gabriella is not important. I’ll forget about her, I’ll forget the audition, and we’ll go out and get that championship. Everyone happy now?”
I’ve said it before, not too long ago, but it bears repeating. Our hero, folks.
So, this was the brilliant plan. Get Troy alone, make him think he’s talking to his boys, and then trick him into saying something that will emotionally destroy Gabriella — while letting her see and hear him do it — thus killing both the threat posed by the callback, and Young Love, in one fell swoop. Unsurprisingly, I have several comments on this “genius” scheme.
First, there are so many ways this could go wrong. The whole plan is predicated on the assumption that Chad can drive Troy to say just the wrong thing at just the right time. What if that’s not true anymore? Chad himself has commented on how people are changing, and on how Troy isn’t acting like he used to. What if all this badgering has worn down Troy’s patience, and this is the final straw that makes him quit the team?
Or, more realistically, what if he just stands up for himself and says, “Look, I know I’ve let you guys down, and I’m sorry. I’ll be better. But I really like Gabriella, and I’m going to do the callbacks too. That’s it. Subject closed, end of discussion.” What are Chad and Taylor going to do then? (Even worse, what if he stops in the middle of his speech and asks, “Hey, what are you doing with that webcam?” Busted!)
Second, and granting for the moment that Chad’s assumption is a sound one, what happens next? The ultimate goal, after all, is to focus Troy on the championship game and Gabriella on the scholastic decathlon. But what is the realistic likelihood of that happening now? Think about it. There is no way for Chad and Taylor to disavow their sabotage. Their fingerprints are all over this stunt. Knowing that, why would Gabi agree to help Taylor? Would you, in her place?
And that little squall should be nothing compared to the storm on the horizon, when Troy finds out that his supposed best friend and his teammates set him up. I’d lay good money on his quitting the basketball team then. The best-case scenario is that Troy and Gabriella are too distracted and miserable to be angry at Chad and Taylor…which still won’t help their competitive performances. No, the most likely conclusions from here all involve at least a few broken friendships, an empty trophy case, and several curtain calls for a triumphant Sharpay on opening night.
Third, let’s take a moment to slow-clap for Troy. I’m going to be nice and ignore the fact that he should have seen the webcam, because there’s a much juicier target here. As crappy a hero as he’s been up till now, he still managed to find an exciting new way to send his Bastard Quotient soaring into the stratosphere. Selling out your crush and your dream in the same breath? Nice.
For those misguided souls who would rush to his defense: look, there are really only two options here. Either Troy is telling his teammates the truth (unlikely), or he’s feeding them a line (more likely). I think we can all agree that if he’s being honest, then he is not worthy of our sympathy. But things aren’t much better if he’s lying. Because then he’s lying to his teammates, the handful of people in all the student body that he should be able to trust implicitly. (Ignore, for the moment, that they clearly don’t deserve that level of trust. He doesn’t know that at this point.) The only reason he would lie, therefore, is to make them think he’s surrendered…so they’ll stop riding his back.
So pick your poison, fans of High School Musical. Is Troy an odious little suckweasel, or is he a spineless coward? Whichever you choose, though, Troy’s hero status and his chances with Gabriella should be fatally damaged. Some flaws are too great to overcome, and some actions cannot be undone…especially in just ninety-eight minutes of running time. (Thirty-seven minutes, now.)
Oh, and obviously…Chad Danforth? Taylor McKessie? WORST. FRIENDS. EVER.
You know who comes off the poorest in this whole scenario, though? (At least for me. YMMV.) No, it actually isn’t Troy. Nor is it Taylor, although it easily could be. She actually has the nerve, in the immediate aftermath of Troy’s speech, to resume her pitch to Gabriella. Oh, bad form, madam! Your poor victim literally has tears running down her cheeks, which you played no small part in causing…and you think it’s a good time to invite her to lunch so you can discuss all the exciting benefits of membership in East High’s geek squad? Gall doesn’t even begin to cover what we see here. Gall, plus cheek, multiplied by stones, raised to the power of chutzpah might come close. But despite all that, Taylor is spared the brunt of my contempt and loathing.
No, that’s reserved for Gabriella.
Yes, the one I just called the victim. But don’t worry. I won’t be engaged in #VictimShaming here. For me to do that, there would actually have to be a victim to shame. And with that, it’s time to tackle Gabriella Montez for good and all. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
(That’s from Henry V, Act III, Scene i. Can’t recall the writer’s name offhand. He was pretty good, though. I mean, not Peter Barsocchini good or anything, but Nameless Dude had some chops.)
If you look back through this review, you’ll see that from time to time I’ve said some fairly snippy things about Gabriella. Among other things, I’ve called her “a cipher of a goody-goody” and a “non-entity.” Well, this moment contains the strongest evidence yet. The script, you see, has established Gabriella as having two concrete desires: Troy, and the callbacks. Both of them have just up and vanished before her eyes. Poof, gone! How does she react? Does she exhibit:
- Denial? The easiest, most obvious response. “No, it can’t be true, it just can’t be!”
- Hysteria? Again, an easy and obvious response. Exaggerated weeping and wailing. Can also be seamlessly combined with denial as the perfect lazy writer’s two-fer.
- Anger? Troy would be the ideal target, of course. But the most immediately available target is Taylor, who obviously has something to do with the broadcast. Blowing up at either or both of them would be a perfectly understandable response at this juncture.
- Disbelief? Not quite the same as denial, disbelief involves an intellectual component — an attempt to disprove what one has just seen. This could be as simple as asking Taylor how she faked the video, or as complex as hunting down and confronting Troy.
- Faith? The exact opposite of disbelief — belief without tangible evidence. Whatever Taylor just showed her wasn’t real. She knows Troy better than that. Everything will be alright.
For those of you who guessed that the answer was “none of the above,” go out and buy yourself a shiny gold star. You earned it.* No, Gabriella just sits there in calm, sad acceptance, until Taylor leaves her in peace. Then she wanders over to the window, just in time to watch Troy’s appearance at a lunchtime pep rally in front of the school.
Needless to say, this occasions more dignified tears…one from each eye, I suppose because it’s uncouth to blubber. But not once, in this whole sequence, does she give a hint that she will confront anyone about her pain, or fight for anything she says she wants. She’ll just suffer in silence as she lets it all go.
* (Well, come on. I’m not giving you one. What am I, made of money? The purchase price alone would break me, to say nothing of shipping costs. …Yes, I’m poor. What’s your point?)
This is because Gabriella Montez is not a well-rounded character. In fact, she’s not a character at all. She is a plot device, thinly disguised by a mishmash of traits and tropes and Informed Attributes. Every viewer of this movie has mistakenly treated her like a character. They were meant to. That’s why there’s an actress to speak some lines and look adorable on camera…to perpetrate the charade of her humanity. But not even the cuteness of Vanessa Hudgens can cover up the truth forever.
I’ll put it to you this way, by summing up my major criticisms of Gabriella thus far. Do you find it credible that a character who claims to have fainted during a church choir solo would find the guts to sing karaoke, in front of a roomful of strangers, with someone she’s never met before? Do you think an academic whiz kid with a spotless behavioral record would brush off getting detention on her first day at a new school, just because the boy who helped her earn it is her cute karaoke partner? Did it strike you as plausible when she showed up at auditions for no established reason — indeed, after having said she was going to skip extracurriculars that semester? Much less that she would openly request a tryout after being so scared that she initially had to hide?
And now, our supposedly dedicated and driven female lead — after having decided to try something new and practiced really hard at it, and after having subsumed herself totally in her crush — just gives up all that hard work and emotional investment without even a token gesture of resistance. Worse yet, she is now (as we’ll soon see) ready to join the team of the girl who helped cost her everything she wanted, solely because that’s where she “belongs.”
I call bullshit. There is no possible way you can square this character’s actions, background, and motivations with each other. And don’t pull the “real life” card on me. If I saw someone acting like this in real life, sure, I’d probably just assume they were more complex than I thought and move on. But character consistency is like…well, it’s like what I said earlier about coincidences. To seem real, a fictional character has to be more consistent than anyone you will ever meet in the actual world. We need to be told who they are at the start of the story, and we need to be told what drives them, and then we need to see everything they say and do follow naturally from those givens.
But the only way to make sense of Gabriella Montez is to resort to metatextual explanations. She does what she does because if she didn’t, the movie’s plot would collapse in on itself. She wants what she wants because Troy drives the story, and so (as the love interest) her wants have to be in sync with his. She is what she is because she has to check off a set of boxes: smart, sweet, pretty, shy, nice, wholesome, understanding. That’s bad writing. And it makes for lousy fiction.
So, yeah, Gabriella pisses me off. I think she should also piss off every fan of this movie, not that they’ll ever notice. They’ll be too busy drooling on their HSM t-shirts to care. But the person it should piss off the most? Gabriella Barsocchini. For those who have trouble understanding why, perhaps you should read the end of Orson Scott card’s novel Xenocide to get Valentine’s take on her young doppelganger. Or…hang on a moment, my bookshelf is handy — here we go:
“…still it rankled, still it hurt that this almost mindlessly perfect creature was what he really thought of her all along. That the Valentine that Ender truly loved was a creature of impossible purity.” (1992 mass-market paperback printing, p. 554)
Writing your daughter into a story as a really good person is one thing — that, I could understand. But a Purity Sue? What a terrible thing, to have yourself immortalized so flawlessly. Seriously, our little Gabi out-Buddhas Buddha. The Blessed Virgin probably prays to her for intercession and guidance. She’s already on Billy Jack’s fourth level. (And hey, we’re in Jabootu country here. You can’t get higher than that.) All I can say is, if anyone fictionalized me this way, I would have some long and unpleasant periods of reflection on how in the hell I was supposed to live up to that.
As if to prove me right re: the whole Purity Sue contention, Gabi chooses this moment to launch into a soulful ballad (“When There Was Me and You”) about how terrible it is that she’s just lost everything. Noticeably absent from the lyrics? Any suggestion that she’ll try to recover what she lost, or chart a new path forward. No, it’s all just lamentation, and how she should never have let herself believe in the “fairy tale.” Told you. Oh, I told you.
But message aside, I also have some aesthetic problems with this number. It starts out nicely, with some very minimal staging…just Gabriella, alone, walking the empty halls of East High. (During the school day, even during lunchtime, would the halls of a massive public school ever really be this empty? Or this dimly lit? Oh, never mind.) But all too soon, this simple choice is spoiled. Kenny Ortega couldn’t resist putting a backlight on Vanessa Hudgens to start the second verse, and so we’re treated to the heavenly vision of Saint Gabi, her radiant halo framing her as she sings about her heartbreak. YES, WE GET IT. MOVE ON.
Plus, somebody (probably Ortega again) decided to try and sneak in some choreography, starting at the same point. Weak as it is, it’s more than this fluffy little song can handle. In fact, it makes the whole piece look ridiculous, as Gabriella steps, and grooves, and swings her arms, and points — all in perfect time with the music. It’s as if she is trying to convince a casting director that she can do “poignant.”
Seriously, one must have a heart of stone to watch her performance on the staircase without even a smirk or a chuckle. And the lyrics don’t make our Little Nell look any better, either. They sound like something that a fourteen-year-old girl would write in her secret poetry notebook while guzzling Cherry Coke and popping Pixy Stix, just before calling her best friend and moaning about how she can’t go to the mall on Saturday because her life is over.
(Credit Where It’s Due: There is one lyric that I love. From the short bridge: “It’s like you were floating while I was falling and I didn’t mind.” Even this, though, is spoiled by the backdrop — a gigantic Wildcats basketball poster, at the center of which is an oversized blowup of Troy. If you look up “tool” in the dictionary, this is the picture you’ll see. Oh, Gabi, you can do so much better.)
So, yeah. In case you hadn’t realized it, this is our “Hopelessly Devoted to You” moment. And this is probably the closest High School Musical gets to the quality level of Grease. But while Ortega apes the concept, and borrows some of the imagery, he simply can’t achieve the same impact.
Anyway, Gabriella wraps up the song, still isolated from the world, and then turns the corner — into a crowded student hallway. Wow, East High must have the most considerate students ever. I guess they all just agreed to stay out of Gabi’s way during her big solo, no matter how many kids were late for class. Oh, wait, never mind. I think I see their motivation now.
As Gabriella opens her conveniently-placed locker (I see she wasn’t too distraught to strategically plan her musical number for maximum scheduling efficiency), Troy saunters up, still blissfully unaware that he was caught in flagrante less than an hour ago. And once again, I throw my hands up in utter disgust at Gabi’s behavior. No snide remarks or recriminations, of course. Not from our golden girl.
But even though she just watched the boy she was crushing on betray her behind her back, she insists on being quietly nice and telling him exactly what she thinks he wants to hear. Hey, I understand, you’ve got your team, we’re two different people living in our own worlds, maybe we should just forget the callbacks, here’s the sheet music back, et cetera. Again, she’s the injured party, and she’s going to take the burden onto herself to let him down easy. Why? You owe him nothing!
Oh, wait. She’s doing this not because it’s realistic behavior from even the nicest of teenage girls, but because it’s what a “good person” would do. You see? Cipher.
So absorbed in her efforts at absolution is Gabi, in fact, that she fails to notice Troy’s obviously negative reactions. How smart is this girl, anyway? She clearly doesn’t register confusion and dismay when it’s right in front of her. I suppose she’s so intent on giving him what he wants that she doesn’t realize what she’s giving him is not what he wants.
And does Troy make any effort at all to figure out what’s happening? No, he does not. A normal person might run after Gabriella and demand an explanation, or at least ask what’s wrong. Instead, his feeble attempts at conversation thwarted, Troy stands in the hallway like a lost puppy until somebody celebrating the impending basketball game blows a vuvuzela in his ear. How am I supposed to root for these two morons to get together? They’re both wimpy invertebrates who are terrible at resolving their problems. I’m kind of enjoying watching them suffer.
But the movie drains even this minor pleasure from me, with a sequence that oversells how lost and helpless they are now that they’ve given into what they think everyone else wants. Troy blows off his teammates to go emo-jogging. Coach Bolton watches from the house as Troy misses a series of simple jumpshots. Gabriella stands on her balcony and practices her sighing and wistful gazing. The capstone is Chad and Taylor bearing witness to their own handiwork, in the form of an awkward lunchtime encounter. At least they have the good grace to look ashamed of themselves as they walk off together. I should hope so, kids. You broke your friends.
Speaking of that…
Thus far, the unifying plot thread of Act Three has been the efforts of Troy and Gabriella’s friends to keep them separate, the better to focus them on the upcoming competitions. Yet as we wind up the act, the thread changes. Chad and Taylor are now trying to reunite our lovebirds. And the evidence suggests that they’re doing so, not because they care, but because their efforts have resulted in their friends being even less focused.
You may think that’s too harsh. I don’t. We have yet to receive any real indication that Taylor cares about Gabriella except as a means to an end. And Chad made it quite clear that he was correcting Troy’s conduct because it was detrimental to the team. So far as I can see, if Troy and Gabriella were locked in on their practices and preparations, Chad and Taylor would be perfectly happy. It’s only because the misery of our leads is affecting their teams’ chances for success that their so-called friends must now try to reverse the damage they’ve done.
Oh, if only this outcome had been foreseeable! Oh, wait, it was. I foresaw it. Admittedly, the first time I watched this turd, I thought that Chad and Taylor’s actions would end up destroying their teams once Troy and Gabriella realized how badly they were being played. It’s the most logical result of their efforts, after all. Then the rest of the movie would involve rebuilding the teams, reforging some friendships, and reuniting our leads…all so the heroes could be in a position to win their championships and take on Sharpay and Ryan. But that was back when I thought this movie might make some structural sense, before I analyzed it and fathomed the depths of stupidity it plumbs. Ah, the days when I was young and innocent. Okay, younger and slightly less cynical.
Chad is up to bat first. He, Zeke, and Jason find Troy moping in the Science Club’s rooftop garden. Their message is simple: we haven’t been acting like a team, we should have been supporting you, and we’ll be there for you now. Well, duh! As juniors in high school, you should already know this. Are all of you ethically retarded? Then Zeke gives Troy some cookies as a peace offering, before they tell him what they did to change his Facebook status to “single.” Troy’s reaction is unshown, perhaps because the Disney Channel is a little squeamish about depicting teenagers choking to death as baked goods are crammed down their throats.
Notice that the whole scene slides right by the question of Troy’s culpability in this series of unfortunate events. Had he managed to balance his responsibilities better, would Chad have been so gung-ho to sabotage Troy’s relationship with Gabriella? Maybe, maybe not…we can’t actually answer the question. Yes, it clearly bothers Chad that people are now doing “stuff that’s not their stuff.”
But again, when it comes to Troy in particular, many of his objections are actually based on the fact that Troy is not giving his full attention to the task at hand — is not living up to his leadership role. And the movie has clearly shown those concerns to be justified. So, even while it’s trying as hard as it can to tilt the moral playing field in Troy’s favor, this terrible script has managed to give Chad a legitimate point of view (although not a legitimate defense of his actions).
In a perfect world, both Troy and Chad should be sympathetic characters here. One wants to try something new. The other wants to win a title. Both should be able to get what they want, but each feels the other is standing in his way. It’s a simple setup, but we don’t need Dostoyevsky-level complexity. (Or that other guy…you know, Bard of Stratford or somesuch.)
All we need is a way for both characters to be wrong, but for the right reasons. Instead, what we have here is both characters being wrong for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t exactly lend itself to the building of sympathy. Who do you root for, the “hoops dude” who neglected his commitments, or the “most loyal best friend” who deliberately set out to wreck his buddy’s happiness? Me, I just want blood.
I’m not going to get it, though, because the scene between Gabriella and Taylor is also a bust. Taylor confesses her motivation outright, and says that relationships are more important than championships. (Does anyone but me remember the beginning of this flick? You guys have known each other for, like, a week. All of a sudden you’re besties? I guess I never realized how seriously young ladies can bond over their similar attitudes toward nail beds.) Gabriella’s response is…well, actually, given how much I’ve been ragging on her, it’s quite sensible. “No one forced Troy to say anything,” she quite reasonably points out. She’s made her choice, and that is the end of that. As Taylor leads her teammates off in defeat, she whispers, “We tried.”
Wait. You tried? You made a minute-long apology in an attempt to atone for the hours you spent planning and executing a scheme that you knew would emotionally devastate someone you claim is your friend, and when it doesn’t work the first time, your only response is to claim that you tried? Well, you’ve just exhausted every possible avenue of atonement, haven’t you, sweetie? No one could expect any more of you. I can’t wait to see how this strategy will work out for Taylor in the future. “Dear Diary: My husband finally found out about my cheating. So I owned up to everything: at least twice a week for years, with multiple different men, in our bed. Yet even after I came clean, he refused to accept my bouquet of apology chrysanthemums. Well, I tried.”
And so we end Act Three on a cliffhanger. How will Troy react to his teammates’ confession of betrayal? Will Gabriella change her mind about Troy? Is there any hope for Our Heroes to join forces in time to achieve Glorious Triumph and True Love? Why are you still reading this? Stay tuned for the answers to all these questions and so many more!
Okay, not the last question. I don’t know that answer. If you’re still reading this, it’s on you.
We rejoin our story as Troy walks up to Gabriella’s house. Now that his teammates have told him what they did, he’s presumably here to give her the old “I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t mean it” speech. Wait a minute. This means that the whole issue of Troy going AWOL on his teammates, and their retaliatory act of scuttling his relationship, was just resolved offscreen over the commercial break! You have got to be freaking kidding me!
Seriously, I can’t stress enough what a mistake this is from a story standpoint. Scenes where Troy and Chad had it out over their various sins would be guaranteed to give us meaningful conflict. That’s something this cinematic garbage heap could use. Conflict is more than just what drives story, you know. It is story. It’s the magic ingredient in the stew, the irresistible lure that entices people to spend two hours of their lives watching something they know isn’t real…and caring about it as if it were. We all have better things to do with our lives, after all. (Yes, we do, he reminds himself ruefully as he looks at the page count for this review.)
Maybe if Peter Barsocchini hadn’t spent nearly an hour diddling around while refusing to start the real plot, we could have had a fully-realized story arc between Troy and Chad. You know, one where both boys were basically decent guys, and sympathetic characters, and didn’t make me want to drive to Albuquerque with a map to their homes in my glove compartment and a wood chipper in tow.
But of course, he didn’t, so now we can’t have nice things. Only about a half hour of running time remains at this point, and giddyup is no longer fast enough. We need to go to warp speed, Scotty. What could have been an important conflict is just going to be swept under the rug and ignored from here on out. Because everything is hunky-dory, yeah, you betcha.
Back to our story, such as it is. While Gabriella is in fact home, she is hiding on the staircase and most emphatically does not want to see Troy. So it’s left to her mother to do the whole covering routine. Ms. Montez seems a bit charmed by her daughter’s “gentleman” caller. Her reaction would certainly indicate she’s heard quite a few pining teenage-girl comments about him, at any rate, though it’s anyone’s guess how much recent history she’s been privy to.
To be fair to her, I suppose if a boy like Troy — who seems clean and well-dressed (for his age bracket) and at least superficially polite — showed up at my door asking to see my baby girl, my only really negative reaction would be “Get a haircut, mophead.” The thing is, though, Troy doesn’t get better with time and acquaintance. He’s not like finely aged cheddar. At this point, he’s more like that tub of cottage cheese that’s been sitting in your refrigerator since the Bush administration. Bush 41, not Bush 43. How he looks on your doorstep now, lady? That’s the best he’ll get.
By the way, for those of you who don’t know, this whole scene is clearly a cunning reference to Act II of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo stops by the home of his family’s archnemeses, the Capulets, and says these immortal words to Juliet’s mother:
Milady, I hath seen your daughter fair,
And find myself enraptured by her charm,
Her countenance, her grace — nay, all of her.
And though I be the son of Montague,
And thus cannot expect a welcome here,
I ne’ertheless have bolstered my resolve
And sallied forth to this forbidding place
In order that I might beseech your child
To shtup her brains out.
Oh, wait. That’s not from Romeo and Juliet. I just made that up right now. In fact, even leaving aside the last line, it could not possibly be from Romeo and Juliet. Had Romeo shown up at the house of the Capulets, he’d have been run through with a spear or a sword long before he ever had a chance to make a plea to Juliet’s mother for her daughter’s hand, let alone her daughter’s virtue. Perhaps, though, this scene might not have been out of place in a movie where the primary obstacle to the leads’ romance was the objections of their friends. (*cough* Grease *cough*)
But since we’re still pretending that this is somehow adapted from Shakespeare, you know what has to come next — the balcony scene. Troy, not ready to give up, has snuck through the garden gate around back. Oh, good, now he’s actually a criminal. Trespassing, yay! He calls Gabriella (who for some reason picks up even after she knows it’s him), and tells her that he didn’t mean what he said. He just wanted his friends to leave him alone. Again, you nimrod, that’s not an excuse!
Instead of pointing that out to him before justifiably hanging up, though, Gabriella instead talks about the weird way everyone else is acting now that he wants to sing. Troy’s not having any of that either. “They can’t handle it,” he says. “That’s not my problem, it’s theirs.” True, though it shouldn’t have taken us seventy minutes to reach such a trite conclusion.
Anyway, this whole scene has been building to a reconciliation moment…and it actually works, but only if you stop to think about it. (What an odd thing to say about High School Musical!) Troy asks Gabriella to turn around, and she sees him standing on the balcony outside her room. When she opens the door, he begins to sing the chorus of his part from “Something New.” However, he seems like he’s hitting several notes flat and shifting between keys, so the result is awkward.
That’s the point, though. Because each individual part was written to harmonize, they sound weird on their own — they only sound good together. “I need you,” is what Troy is trying to say. So, Credit Where It’s Due. But why trust your audience to read between the lines now, when you have spent the whole running time to this point taking subtlety behind the woodshed and treating it like Old Yeller?
Now that our two lovebirds are back together, obviously things will start to improve. And so they do. Troy is back at practice, seemingly playing better than ever. We see Gabriella tutoring the scholastic decathlon team in chemistry. And they’re even making time to practice with Kelsi. So, everything is fine, right?
Well, no, of course not. Everything is not fine. This sequence, and what happens after it, highlights a major problem in the script, one that’s been developing ever since the beginning of the third act.* Any idea what it is? And no, I’m not talking about how, in this alternate universe, East High’s halls are still relatively crowded at 5:36 PM. Don’t you kids have jobs? Or TVs, or video games? Doesn’t Albuquerque have a mall, or a park, or even a Starbuck’s where you little brats can hang?
* (Obviously, I have defined acts by commercial breaks, rather than in any sort of structural manner. Which, given this movie’s lack of proper structure, I think we can all agree was a wise decision.)
No idea? Okay, I’ll give you a hint. Not counting her mention a few paragraphs ago, when was the last time I brought up Kelsi’s name? Uh-huh. I think some of you are starting to get it.
If I were to sum up the main conflict of High School Musical in a single sentence, it would be this: “Two lovestruck teens want to try something new, but their friends strive to keep them from their dreams and from each other.” Unwieldy, yes, but you get my point. And that’s the storyline we’ve been on since the beginning of Act Three.
But before that point, the movie barely touched on it. This is because, since our leads were coming no closer to their supposed goal, there was nothing for their friends to keep them from. The movie makes nods toward what should be its main conflict at several points, but nothing of any consequence. Instead, we were introduced to a bunch of other characters and plot elements, all of which were summarily brushed aside so Chad and Taylor could play matchbreakers.
Doubt me? Just read my coverage again, or go ahead and watch the movie yourself. (Yeah, my coverage is looking better all of a sudden, huh?) You’ll find that our foremost supporting characters, and even two of our six leads, have been gone a long time. Ms. Darbus hasn’t been onscreen in ages. Kelsi was name-checked…once. We saw Coach Bolton briefly, but just to establish Troy’s distress at being separated from Gabi the Lightworker. You may remember Sharpay and Ryan showed up, but only to announce that they needed to do something about the developing threat to their stardom…again, a resolution they never saw through. Maybe they had a significant emergency involving a sudden dearth of hair-care products in the greater Albuquerque area.
So these five characters, all major presences in the movie before Act Three, either were absent or else appeared in a way that made no impact on the story. As a result, every plotline they were involved with ground to a halt. That means there was no faculty feud, no callback-related scenes, and the most minimal presence possible from our villains.
To sum that up: by neglecting its throughline for so long, when it finally gets there, High School Musical feels as though it has made a hard-right turn, narratively speaking…almost as though it’s been spinning its own wheels for the last twenty minutes until it got back to the stuff we started with. Peter Barsocchini’s script is so poorly structured that the main plot comes across as a tangent! If that’s not worth another slow clap, I don’t know what is.
I want to discuss one more problem before I move on. It’s not a script error, really…it’s an issue with the backstory. But another thing these last twenty minutes have done is to make it even more obvious how unbalanced Troy and Gabriella are in terms of importance.
If you listen to Coach Bolton, Troy is the linchpin of East High’s entire student body. Gabriella is just the new girl. Troy has friendships and responsibilities; Gabriella does not yet, at least not really. She just moved to town, after all. So the events between her and Taylor aren’t quite analogous to the events between Troy and Chad, even though they’re meant to be.
Again, think about it. Taylor wanted Gabriella to join her team. Chad is already on a team with Troy. That’s a big difference. The movie tries to treat it as if it didn’t matter, by paralleling scenes between our two leads and their friends. Yet an attentive viewer can hardly help but notice that Troy and Chad have a shared history and bond, whereas Gabriella and Taylor do not. Troy might be moved by a picture of “Spider” Bill Natrine (read: an appeal to the Wildcat basketball legacy) even against his better judgment and his feelings for Gabi. But nothing about Eleanor Roosevelt can stop Gabi from telling Taylor to take a hike. It’s the difference between blood and water.
So on its most basic level, High School Musical cannot help but prioritize Faux Danny over Ersatz Sandy. (I refuse to pretend anymore that they were going for Romeo and Juliet.) That’s an issue because, on the terms the story has set up, it means the two leads can never be equals. I’m not sure which one is the root problem, Gabriella not being a real character or Gabriella not being a true lead.
Or maybe they came about in unrelated ways and just happen to complement each other perfectly…you know, two bad things that taste bad together. There’s probably a film school essay in there for someone, as long as they don’t mind getting their work back with coffee stains all over the front from where the professor did a spit take when s/he saw the topic.
Okay. Enough of that. On with the show, because we’re so close to being done.
We return from my irregularly scheduled rant to find our two leads in a music room with Kelsi, back to practicing their number. They sound…well, they sound pretty good. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Ryan and Sharpay are passing by — and giving us a preview of their own callback song in the process — when they hear their competition.* Even our grizzled theater veterans deliver an impressed verdict. Maybe impressed is too weak a word, actually. Sharpay seems almost panicked. She gasps out, “We have to do something.” Didn’t you say something similar in the last act, sweetie? Promises, promises.
* (Of course, as we already covered, the Evans siblings each heard half their competition singing before. Then, it seemed like they didn’t know what they were hearing. Now they do. I guess they’ve had a chance to compare notes. Benefits of living in the same house?)
Yet this time, believe it or not, Sharpay actually has a plan. “Okay, our callback’s on Thursday, and the basketball game and scholastic decathlon are on Friday. (pause) Too bad all these events weren’t happening on the same day…at the same time.” Nope. Calling foul. There is no way Sharpay just came up with that off the top of her head. Not least because I’m sure she has no idea what a scholastic decathlon is, let alone when one is scheduled. Either this idea was the product of previous off-screen research, or Peter Barsocchini is messing around with the script again because it’s not giving him the outcome he wants. Unsurprisingly, I vote for Option B.
Also, aren’t the callbacks scheduled for 3:30 PM? I think I remember seeing that earlier. So realistically, there’s no way to make them conflict with the basketball game. No high school would play a championship game in the early afternoon on a weekday, you see. Parents couldn’t attend…they’d still be at work. And the kids on the teams would all need dinner first. Surely the basketball game would be in the evening, maybe at 7 or 8.
Now, maybe Gabriella would get caught out by this plan. I went to some quiz-bowl tournaments held during early weekday afternoons. But I also went to a fair number in the evenings, so it would depend on scheduling. Still, there’s no way Troy can be stopped from auditioning, unless Sharpay is able to switch the callbacks to Friday night. And why would Ms. Darbus agree to that?
(Sidenote: Ryan may be the dumbest character in the movie. It’s a close call, because we also have Jason and Troy, but he’s a strong contender at the very least. He doesn’t immediately understand what his sister is driving at. In fact, he starts explaining about how Troy and Gabriella wouldn’t be able to do the callback…not realizing that what he’s saying is obviously Sharpay’s point. If this is a laugh line, I have nothing but contempt for it. Your laughs should never come at the expense of making your villains look stupid or foolish, if you want them to be taken seriously at all.)
Still Sharpay will try her plan anyway. They immediately go to Ms. Darbus, who agrees with them that the callback date should be changed. Again, why would she do such a thing? What reason does she have? She should just veto the suggestion and move on. Oh, wait. Is this still about her fears that Coach Bolton and his players are trying to sabotage her show? We haven’t touched on that storyline in nearly half an hour, Peter! And you want to bring it back into play now? Well, tough luck, Donald Duck. Maybe you should have spent some of Act Three developing your subplots.
Even setting aside Ms. Darbus’s fears, this development does her character no favors. What Sharpay is proposing is a transparently obvious attempt at competitive protectionism. And I don’t care if she and her brother are the co-presidents of East High’s drama club. As participants in the callback process, they are also interested parties, and as such can’t be trusted to sit in judgment on a case that concerns them. This is why high school clubs have faculty advisers in the first place…to make sure that everything that goes on is fair and above board. By giving into Sharpay, Ms. Darbus is proving that she is willfully incompetent at her job. And also, she has made herself a hypocrite. Whatever happened to giving every student an even chance, huh?
Oh, well. I suppose it won’t make a difference. It’s not like anyone heard them colluding to fix the callback results. Except for Kelsi, who was hiding behind a piano. Dunh-dunh-DUNH