Sir, that is my emotional support film: High School Musical 3 in Times of Crisis
Not really understanding what a ‘credit crunch’ was, I was able to enjoy 2008. I distinctly remember the releases of Twilight, Wall-E and The Dark Knight, but why did I give High School Musical 3: Senior Year a miss even though I’d loved the first film? Perhaps, even at the ripe old age of eleven, I felt, deep in my soul, that it shouldn’t have been made. I’ve never cared for threequels. More often than not, they are an attempt by producers to squeeze every last drop from the worn, shrivelled udders of the cash cow (sorry). At their best, they’re a celebratory send-off for a beloved story. At their worst, they're a multi-million-dollar exercise in beating a dead horse.
Fast forward to 2020: Robert Pattinson and Batman are both culturally significant again, except this time Robert Pattinson IS Batman. The world as we know it is falling apart, but this time I do understand it! What better way to mark the return to a collective pit of despair than to dive into a film from the year of everyone’s favourite recession? One lockdown afternoon, in either Aprilgust or Maytember, I drew the living room curtains to mask my sin. My lover of the moment, a bag of salted pretzels, warmed itself in the glow of my laptop screen, and I pressed play.
In this 112-minute blockbuster beauty, we return to East High. Our beloved characters face the stresses of their last year of school: the looming perils of prom night, the terrifying finality of graduation, the abject misery of heading off to university miles away from each other. On top of this, drama teacher Ms. Darbus is directing the school musical. The… er... high school musical.
Troy (baby Zac Efron!) is back. This time, he's torn between The University of Albuquerque and The Juilliard School, for which he may receive a scholarship. Does he want to sing and dance, or does he want to play basketball? (Didn’t we answer this question in the first film? And the second?) Fabulously flamboyant fan-favourite Sharpay, her brother Ryan and musical prodigy Kelsi are also being considered for the scholarship, and Sharpay angles for the best songs in the musical to increase her chances. Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens, back when she still had the ‘Anne’) has been accepted to Stanford. The honours program pulls her away from prom and graduation and Troy is left feeling abandoned and despondent. Is he going to sing about it? You can bet on it.
Their friends, Chad and Taylor, are also back, woefully underdeveloped even in a film where everyone is pretty two-dimensional. I hate to break this to you, Disney, but it’s not representation if two out of three black characters only really exist as ‘the best friends’ and have been lazily paired off together. It’s tokenism. Not to mention how irredeemably grating these two would find each other in real life.
As an East High student would say, let’s break it down. I’ll start with performance, because that’s what I’m most qualified to talk about. As an actor (and winner of 2020’s Wankiest Sentence Opener award), what I’m about to say may surprise you: the performances are fine. This is the Disney School of Acting. Disney Acting (rightfully) assumes you’re a child, and spoon-feeds you inflection and intention in every line. It’s cheesy, it’s cringey and it hurts your eyes to watch. That’s not the actors’ fault. Remember when everyone was surprised at how good Zac Efron was in 17 Again (2009), or when Vanessa Hudgens absolutely killed the televised Grease Live (2016) special as Rizzo? They’re good actors - always have been. They’re just working to a very specific brief. Acting gets a pass here.
This film differs from its predecessors in that it was given a theatrical release. Sure, I get it, but something about how cinematic it is makes me feel dirty. Seeing the East High gang rendered in uncomfortable HD made me feel as though I'd stolen from the collection bowl at church. The cheesy split screen and horrible CGI basketballs raining from the sky become so much harder to accept in 1080p. And nobody ever has pores on The Disney Channel!
Soundtrack-wise, there are a couple of standouts. ‘Now or Never’ makes for a heart-pumping opening, set against a tense basketball game - I imagine this was a seat-wetting experience for many die-hard Wildcats. ‘The Boys are Back’ is another outing for the surface-level masculinity this franchise likes to roll out for their male characters (I guess in an attempt to make singing, dancing basketballers seem acceptably hetero) but, honestly? It's a lot of fun.
Some forgettable numbers abound - Troy and Gabriella's will-they-won't-they-of-course-they-bloody-will romance playing out in song form. (Of course, we all learned that love wasn’t real the day Zanessa broke up for good IRL, which taints the on-screen love story somewhat.) Of course, Troy needed an 11 o'clock number, so they gave him ‘Scream’. It’s underwhelming. It's as if someone beat a power ballad up and stole its lunch money. You will remember less than half of this soundtrack.
High School Musical 3: Return of the Jedi reminded me of being eighteen in the best and most heart-breaking of ways. The pressure to make the right choices, feeling left behind by the people you’re closest to, the bewilderment of not having one clear thing you’re good at and want to do for the rest of your life. If you’re reading this, you probably remember the struggle all too well, but probably coped with it differently. Nobody cries in the bathroom at East High. A true Wildcat channels their angst into inexplicably well-choreographed song-and-dance numbers. At that age, I didn’t realise that mistakes are totally fine and nobody cares about things as much as you think they do. The kids in HSM don’t know this yet, but they’ll learn. They’ll be okay, and so will we. There will still be songs to sing. Better ones, probably.
Under different circumstances, I’d have said - skip it. But, these are, as they say, UnPreCeDenTed tImEs. Maybe HSM3: Beyond Thunderdome, in all its glorious 2008-ness, is a balm to soothe the constant low-level anxiety of living through a pandemic and whatever the hell happened on Supernatural.
Right now, we’re Troy and his friends, in a swirling storm of scary shit nobody really prepared us for. Remember all the times we thought we wouldn’t make it through, but we did? It took time, but the struggles of the past seem so much smaller in the present. This, too, shall pass. In the meantime, maybe we should get our friends on a video call and enjoy two hours of this often-baffling, sometimes-beautiful thing. Maybe we need something that doesn’t make us smarter, or better, or improve our lives in any way (and this film really won’t) - just to remind us that we’re all in this together.
Actress and writer Sarah Amero fell in love with film after watching Finding Nemo. Having given up on her dream of becoming a clownfish, she's settled for just being a clown. She can be found on Instagram @sarahamero.