My close friend and esteemed colleague William Bibbiani, who was one of the few people to also take the time to meet this movie halfway and write a review for it, served up a thumbs-down pan for The Wrap that was nonetheless fair-minded, friendly, and respectful. His largest issue with the movie appears to be its lack of plausibility and stakes-worthy conflict, stating that, "the film’s production values [undermine] the story at every turn." On his Critically Acclaimed podcast with Witney Seibold, he further addressed that though it would be churlish to take issue with teenagers of limited acting experience and range performing as such, the experience of watching the film felt akin to being the parent of one of the kids who feels compelled to stay and watch the proceedings even though rooting interest dissipated shortly after their particular fave already did their number. Which is pretty much how my own father felt when he came to watch the big show at the performing arts camps he sent me to for my middle school years, not to mention how my friends felt about coming to see me during my open-mic stand-up years. (Plot twist: they didn't, and I wound up performing to the empty room that resulted after the audience members who came to see their friends split when their five minutes was up. But I digress) Much like me, he was hoping for a different kind of "camp" movie.
Bibbs has cogently assessed why he does not recommend it. I am not here about simply gainsaying his points, suffice to say that, in keeping with the principle coined by programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks as "neo-sincerity," what took him out of the movie never troubled me. Low production value? Sending me to Days of Creation cost my dad plenty, and their facilities were definitely not Camp Mohawk posh. The songs and choreography are so-so? Would it be better if Tommy French from SMILE were to have been in charge and turned a nice bunch of high school kids into Vegas showgirls? And, dude, it's not that Cindy turned on the house lights during Kelly's number, it's that her jerk move cut the power to her backing music and threw off the act. Didn't you ever have to solve the mystery of "The music stopped, and the lady died" when you were in middle school? But hey, consistency is a hobgoblin of small minds. And speaking of HOBGOBLINS...naah, we'll table that movie for now. The point is, he's already lain out what doesn't work. I've come to say here's what does work, DO MORE OF THAT!
Another element that may seem incredulous to some but felt effective to me is the virtual lack of adult supervision in this story. Aside from the hapless camp director, there are no other adult males ever seen. And beyond some early comic relief with Cindy's enabling mother, a disheartening audio exchange between Becky and her pushy stage mom, and the one moment with the boys' basketball camp coach, no adult women either, Even the ostensible visiting mentor Jasmine Joel is herself just reaching college age, though she does have some lessons to impart. Thus, we are spared any kind of tired "the grown-ups have the answers" lecturing; the girls in effect are recognizing and solving their own problems. As FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH director Amy Heckerling once observed, "I hate parents. Parents open a whole box of stuff I [don’t] want to get into. I just [want] to say ‘Here’s the world of kids in their own universe.'" And in a film that is almost exclusively going to be viewed by the Tiger Beat set, agency and self-determination are good skills to depict.
While NEXT LEVEL is not a strong enough movie to hold much interest for anyone who isn't a teenage girl or their sitter for the night, if you do find yourself watching it in such circumstance...your roommate absconded with your copy of the original HAIRSPRAY, and CAMP with Anna Kendrick got pulled from streaming, and you don't think your young charge is ready for Coco's breakdown in FAME, you will see a world where girls are valued, boys aren't toxic, and in a time of your life where it feels like Everything is Everything, it's possible to lower the stakes and find calm. Bibbs is right in that I won't likely remember any of the song or dance numbers that were supposed to be the big draw. But I will remember that I had a good time, and that's worth something too.
(P.S.: Thank you for the post-credit blooper reel. Since most indie movies don't get physical media releases anymore, I sometimes worry that little bonuses like this may fall by the wayside. Why should Marvel fans get all the cookies?)