Beca (Anna Kendrick) is starting her first year at Barden College with a free ride because her father is a professor there. The only problem is, she doesn’t want to go to college. Beca would rather be going to LA to become a music producer. She spends every spare moment (even in the cab she took from home to avoid interacting with her father) on her laptop, creating mash-ups and musical creations, her real joy in life. She has an awkward first meeting with her roommate, she scoffs condescendingly at the goofy people she encounters around campus (especially the cute guy who sings at her out the window of a car), and her embarrassing dad is insisting that if she gives college a try and doesn’t like it he will pay for her to move to LA. This would typically be the start of a typical college movie about romance, parties, friends, and finding your place. But Pitch Perfect has something different going for it. You see… Beca is a nerd.
Unlike most other nerd-centered, college movies, Pitch Perfect isn’t about nerds vs. jocks or nerds trying to fit in with the popular crowd. It’s about nerds loving who they are. After accidentally being overheard singing in the shower (a page out of the Glee book), Beca is recruited to join The Barden Bellas, a female a cappella group. It seems that, against all odds, the Bellas made it to the a cappella finals in Lincoln center last year, but in the middle of their final performance their lead singer gave a spectacular display of projectile vomit all over the stage and their hopes were dashed. The Bellas now find themselves at the bottom of the of the nerd ladder, the laughing stock of campus, with most of their popular-girl stereotype singers gone. So now they have to turn to the nerds.
In addition to rebellious/alternative/sarcastic Beca they recruit “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) who calls herself “Fat Amy” so that “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back”, Lily (Hanna May Lee) who speaks in the faintest of whispers, a large, African-American lesbian, a slut and the rest of their band of misfits. The new Bellas (as far from the uptight, skinny, blonde group they were before) must come together in typical sports movie fashion to get back to the finals and beat the Treble Makers. The Treble Makers are the top a cappella group of Barton College, an all male group who are the coolest kids on campus “for people who aren’t athletes, frat boys, or actually cool.”
Such is the setup for Pitch Perfect, but where the movie shines is in its full embrace of its inner nerd. The best way to describe it is with an example from about halfway through the movie. The Bellas are in their bus on the way to a competition, all sitting quietly doing their own things. Chole (Brittany Snow) is listening to music on her headphones and starts singing along quietly to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”. Another girl joins in with her, then another, and soon everyone in the bus is singing except for Beca. It’s clear from the look she gives everyone that there is no way she is going to join in, she knows the song is lame and she’s above sing alongs in the car. But as they reach the chorus they pause and lean towards her, the peer pressure growing more awkward by the second. Beca shrinks away from them, refusing to give in, until the notes just burst out of her and she sets her inner nerd free. That’s Pitch Perfect in a nutshell. It’s a nerdy movie, with cheesy songs galore, about something as lame as a cappella competitions. But it reels you in with its humor and heart, and with genuine fun.
It helps that Pitch Perfect is hilarious. It perfectly captures the awkwardness of college, which most movies gloss over. The Treble Makers will be perfectly familiar to anyone whose college campus had an a cappella group and who can remember how ridiculous the a cappella fandom can be. The supporting cast is strong, with Lilly’s whispered comments particularly standing out. Rebel Wilson steals every scene she’s in, and the movie even manages to make projectile vomit mildly funny (even if it felt a bit like a plea to the Bridesmaids crowd). Anna Kendrick proves that she can carry a movie of her own. She’s funny and sweet, and brings the right amount of skepticism to the role, allowing her to both mock the dorkiness of her surroundings but also to take joy in joining in. Pitch Perfect is the that kind of movie, one that can make fun of itself while still celebrating its own freak flag.
The other thing that Anna Kendrick brings to the table is a truly pretty alto, which is important because where Pitch Perfect shines the brightest is with its music. Yes, the songs may all be auto-tuned (except for when Beca is singing alone, all of which Anna Kendrick sang live), but theres an energy to the musical numbers. The highlight is a brilliant scene where the four different campus a cappella groups join together for a “riff-off”. A song theme is chosen (for example “songs about sex”) and one group will start with a song of their choice. At any time one of the other groups can jump in and cut them off, starting their song with whatever word was last sung by the previous group. It’s an exciting and funny scene, and one that you could almost imagine happening on a college campus somewhere. It’s the rare movie scene that I wish had been longer. Beca’s talent at mixing songs become the Bella’s secret weapon, and it leads to some really interesting mixes, and Anna Kendrick’s stage background really shows.
Yes there’s a romantic subplot between Beca and a rival member of the Treble Makers, but it’s balanced enough to be believable and also to stay out of the way when necessary. Jesse (Skylar Astin), the guy who sang to Beca out the window of a car on her first day at school, is a sweet guy who wants to make music for movies, with The Breakfast Club being his example of the best film score of all time. He’s shocked to find that Beca doesn’t like movies, thinking them predictable and uninteresting. It’s a sweet sideline for the movie, and it’s given just the right amount of weight without overpowering the story. Because Pitch Perfect is, at its heart, a love letter to nerds (and music nerds in particular). It understands how passionate we can be about what drives us, even if it might be embarrassing or dorky or out of the ordinary. There are shades of the documentary The King of Kong in how Pitch Perfect captures its particular nerd culture, but the movie isn’t exactly about that. It’s about being passionate about what you love and being confident enough to share that passion with others. It’s about showing that no matter what drives you, there are others out there who feel the same way, and that when we get together behind a common interest there are no limits. That’s something any nerd can relate to.