The American Mall (DVD)

Love and dreams are not for sale.

From the executive producers of High School Musical comes a made-for-TV musical that’s — let’s face it — clearly designed to cash in on the runaway success of High School Musical.

This is another one of those simultaneous releases, where the DVD is hitting stores at the same time as the movie debuts on MTV. Is it cool and exciting like a shopping spree inside Chess King, or is it stale and tasteless like that sticky film that’s left over in the bottom of your cup after you finish your Orange Julius?

american mall

Teenage Ally (Nina Bobrev, Degrassi: The Next Generation) is an aspiring songwriter working at her single mom’s music store at the mall. The store is suffering financially, and the snobbish rich girl Madison (Autumn Reeser, Lost Boys: The Tribe), the mall owner’s daughter, wants to open her own boutique, but needs the music store’s space to do so.

Meanwhile, hunky nighttime janitor Joey (Rob Mayes, Coda) is also an aspiring musician, having formed a band with his fellow hunky janitors. He’s been watching Ally from afar for some time, admiring both her and her music. Could their combined music, and their budding romance, be what it takes to save the store, or will Madison’s sinister machinations drive them forever apart?

american mall

Let us pause for a moment and consider mall culture. In the 1980s, the mall ruled all. For teenagers, especially the pre-driver’s ed teenagers, the mall was the place to be. This is where you could find the latest fashions, all kinds of crazy doodads, cheap food, video arcades, and even comic books and role playing games for the geek crowd. More importantly, the mall was where teens could interact with teens from other schools, rather than those they saw every weekday in class. This was a huge deal for teens. Also, again for those who didn’t yet drive, the mall was usually the destination for an entire Saturday or Sunday. For eight hours or more, the mall became the microcosm of the teen world — an unstoppable adolescent hurricane of commerce, hormones, and rock and roll.

Naturally, the entertainment world was quick to pick up on mall culture. Woody Allen’s Scenes from a Mall, a bizarre film if there ever was one, is the one that first comes to everyone’s minds, but there are plenty of others. The heroic John Matrix trashed a mall during one of Commando‘s bombastic action scenes, the Blues Brothers tore through a mall in one of their many car chases, George Romero satirized the mall by filling it with shambling zombies, robot security guards went berserk in Chopping Mall, and when Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan had to show some historical figures what life was like in modern-day San Dimas, where did they go? That’s right, the mall. The mall truly had its own culture, reaching the stratosphere in 1987 when teen pop sensation Tiffany went on a national tour, performing in malls instead of stadiums or amphitheaters. This experiment was hugely successful but, oddly, never repeated. Wherever she is now, Tiffany is probably still unimaginably wealthy thanks to that one-of-a-kind tour.

But, times changed. The mall is not as prevalent in society as it once was. Sure, it’s still a shopping destination, but it’s no longer its own little society. The malls now have to compete for customers with big box stores and upscale outdoor “lifestyle centers.” Pre-driving teens seem more likely to hang out at skate parks or in front of their Xboxes than at the mall, based on my own observations, at least. Then along came Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, which I’ve always felt signaled the end of mall culture. In that film, the mall is something of a dump, looking run-down and sparsely populated. The characters go there not to enjoy themselves, but to escape their troubled lives. A side-trip to a lowbrow flea market shows it to be busier and more exciting than the mall. Then, in Smith’s next film, Chasing Amy, when Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) is asked about the mall, he declares “We stopped that sh*t years ago.” A place would have to be pretty crappy for Jay and Silent Bob not to hang out there.

american mall

Now, in 2008, MTV introduces The American Mall, and the mall is a vibrant, colorful place again. More interestingly, it’s once more depicted as its own little society. The story’s protagonist and antagonist both claim that they’ve practically lived their whole lives at the mall (one’s parent is a mall store owner, while the other owns the entire mall). The hunky male romantic interest, meanwhile, offers a tour of the “secret underbelly” of the mall, where maintenance and storage areas are treasure troves of forgotten items, and where a trip to the roof leads to — what else? — romance under the stars. The filmmakers have wisely set the movie during summer vacation, so every single scene can take place within the confines of the mall. Not only is the mall their entire world, but it also leads to a world of future possibilities. The mall is where business owners get their big chance, where fashion designers and rock stars get discovered, and where true love could be found right around the next aisle of merchandise. Instead of just somewhere to go when you need to buy a new pair of pants, the mall, at least in this film, has its own culture again, and is a place of wonder and mystique.

This is one shiny, glossy, glitzy movie. There are bright colors everywhere, and everything looks sparklingly new. It’s a dream vision of what a mall could look like. And yet, the movie’s message is at odds with the spend-crazy setting. Ally longs to be a songwriter, but her mother insists on sending her to business school, with the argument that it’s better to make a living than pursue a dream that in all likelihood will lead nowhere. Joey and his fellow janitors face a similar conflict. Do they agree to sell out to Madison just so people can hear their music, or is it more important to maintain their integrity, even if it means sweeping floors and collecting trash for the rest of their lives? The mall is represented as the place where you can find anything, but in order for these characters to follow their hearts, they must look beyond the materialism around them to find what’s really important.

Of course, all this is under the surface. What you’re seeing on screen is a lighthearted, bubblegum pop musical that’s in the exact same cotton candy tone as the High School Musical films. Starry-eyed adolescent girls are the target audience (the cast admits as much on one of the commentaries). Naturally, everyone is boot-knockingly beautiful, with perfect hair and awesome clothes. The songs are all in the boy band/teen girl ballad style, again light and inoffensive. In fact, everything here is inoffensive, there’s not a swear word, toilet joke or bare butt to be seen. The girls might strike some suggestive poses during a few dance numbers, but that’s as much sexiness as there is.

american mall

As you might guess, there’s not much you haven’t seen in terms of story. There’s the nice girl with the struggling mom versus the snobby rich girl with the wealthy dad. The nice girl falls for the guy with the great bangs, only to have the snobby rich girl try to seduce him. After the appropriate amount of tears and misunderstandings, everything is worked out in time for the big happy ending. There are few side stories, involving Ally’s friends and a dorky comic relief guy who works at the mall’s hot dog stand, but this is not a plot with much depth.

If you’re one of those cynical viewers who scrunches up your nose in gross disbelief when characters in musicals suddenly jump out of their seats and start singing and dancing for apparently no reason, The American Mall won’t change your mind. But if you’re willing to go with the flow with this whole “musical” thing, you’ll find the choreography quite clever and energetic. The cast and dancers throw themselves into each number with wild abandon, leaping, kicking, and spinning all the way from the food court to the Baby Gap and back again. The dancing elevates the overall quality of the movie, making the sometimes ordinary songs a little more fun and energetic than they otherwise would be.

The actors perform their roles just as required. Nina Dobrev perfectly gets across the combination of spunkiness and vulnerability needed for the “good girl” character, while Autumn Reeser does the icy and angry “bad girl” routine just as perfectly. Underneath his awesome bangs, Rob Mayes also nicely combines hunky cool with underlying sensitivity, making him the idyllic romantic interest for a flick like this. The various other best friends and comic relief characters also do their jobs adequately. No one’s necessarily a standout, but no one’s terrible, either.

Thanks to a keen visual eye and nice lighting under the guidance of director Shawn Ku (Pretty Dead Girl), the cinematography is cleaner and nicer-looking than most made-for-TV movies, especially the zero-budget trappings of the first High School Musical. As such, the picture quality on this DVD is top notch, with all the bright colors and perfect hair hitting the screen with clarity. The 5.1 audio track, essential for a musical, is also excellent, filling the room with sound.

Of the two commentary tracks, the better one is the director’s track, in which Ku is joined by the three supporting “janitor” actors. This one has a lot of info about the production — the mall where was filmed wasn’t shut down during production, so the cast and crew had to contend with real-life shoppers while filming — as well as some humorous anecdotes. The other commentary, with a number of actors, mostly has them giggling at various in-jokes between themselves. They’re really commentating to each other and not to the audience. The deleted scenes add some additional jokes and character interactions, as well as an alternate ending that ties up a lot of loose ends. The extended performances reveal some small cuts made to some of the musical numbers. “Dancing with Bonnie” is a 15-minute featurette in which one of the movie’s choreographers and some of the actors teach viewers to do moves from two of the big numbers. I’ll admit I didn’t get up and dance along with my TV (I have to draw the line somewhere), but I did find it interesting how much thought, imagination, and hard work goes into recreating just a few seconds of these dance routines. Three of the music videos are simply the same numbers from the movie, with a handful of edits of other scenes added in. The fourth video is an original from the Janitors, which is of a completely different style, both visually and musically, from the movie. Weird. Finally, there’s a collection of semi-amusing bloopers that’s “presented by” Clean and Clear. I find this amusing, as I doubt a pimple has ever been anywhere near the abnormally good-looking cast of The American Mall.

If The American Mall is any indication, does this mean that mall culture is not dead, but even making a comeback? Or, is this movie the creation of stale, deluded Hollywood producers trying to recapture a culture that they believe still exists, but doesn’t? Only time, and a visit to your local mall on a Saturday, will tell…

Like a slice of Sbarro pizza, The American Mall doesn’t have a lot of substance, but it’s still a nice treat.

american mall

The Verdict

No need to give it the stinkpalm, this one’s not guilty.

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