California Literary Review

The Fourth Wall

A Film and Television Blog

What summer should have been: Camp in Movies and TV

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May 18th, 2010 at 12:55 pm

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It’s already mid-May, guys. Summer’s nearly upon us. “Summer” means something different to everyone, but universally it seems to include any or all of the following: steamy weather; fresh produce; chirping crickets; blooming flowers; heat mirages rising from the pavement in front of your car; exhausted, sunburned limbs; and tossing yourself in the nearest body of water. I learned a few weeks ago I’ll be working a job as a camp counselor over the summer of 2010.

My first thought upon hearing I got the job was, “All right, what do I watch to prepare myself for this?” I immediately set to finding summer camp movies and TV to train my brain for a summer packed with kids, mosquito bites, arts and crafts, dodgeball, swimming pools, and awesomeness.

These made the list:

Camp Nowhere (1994, dir. Jonathan Prince)

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Part 1 of Camp Nowhere, the whole of which is available on YouTube.

This under-appreciated little movie is a perfect vision of every kid’s dream summer. It follows pre-teens who decide to escape their parents’ expectations—computer camp, fat camp, military camp, and drama camp—and create their own summer getaway. With the help of the always-wacky Christopher Lloyd, the kids manage to con their parents out of a few thousand dollars, rent some old hippie cabins, and make the best of it, all while dealing with raging hormones and rebellious streaks. The kids in this movie do everything you wish you could’ve as a kid—playing with fireworks, eating nothing but Twinkies and peanut butter, mud-wrestling, swan diving into a sea of mattresses. Bonus: the internet offers little about the movie besides the fact that a very young Jessica Alba has a tiny, nonspeaking role in the movie. Camp Nowhere is not the best flick ever, but it holds a special place in my heart as a symbol of the way summer should have been when I was thirteen.

Meatballs (1979, dir. Ivan Reitman)

Chris Makepeace and Bill Murray in Meatballs.

Meatballs features one of Bill Murray’s funniest roles. As lead counselor Tripper, he manages to teach the misfits that they, too, can be awesome. The movie follows a proscribed plot of summer romances, hijinx, and funny Murray monologues, and while it doesn’t have a truly moral bent, it’s sweet, heartwarming, and genuinely fun.

Heavyweights (1992, dir. Stephen Brill)

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The end-of-camp dance—one of the most stressful moments of any kid’s life.

Before “Freaks & Geeks” or Superbad, Judd Apatow wrote Heavyweights, which stars “Kenan & Kel” era Kenan Thompson, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ben Stiller. Fat camp is every kid’s nightmare, and Heavyweights is predicated on the notion that putting an überfit exercise guru (Stiller) in charge of a bunch of fat kids is a hilariously stupid idea. As always, hijinx ensue and the kids learn that the best way to go through life is to stay true to yourself. As an added bonus for those of us brought up on the early ‘90s Disney Channel and SNICK, the movie features several Nickelodeon and Disney-raised cast members from the beloved Mighty Ducks franchise.

Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham)

Camp gone bad: Kevin Bacon eats it in Friday the 13th.

When you think of camp gone horribly wrong, Friday the 13th is the first movie to come to mind. Vapid, impudent counselors fail to save a drowning child, and we’re still paying for it. How many Friday the 13th movies are there now? Nonetheless, the original film features some incredible deaths (Kevin Bacon’s is notable), and introduces the terror that is Jason Voorhees (even if the villain isn’t actually Jason in the first one). The rules of horror movies—don’t have sex, never say “I’ll be right back,” and never drink or do drugs—were cemented in this movie, and those who break ‘em die horrible deaths.

The following two focus on counselors instead of campers. According to the rhetoric, the counselors can have as much fun as the kids do (though I hope no one gets up to quite these antics at my job).

Wet Hot American Summer (2001, dir. David Wain)

Short-shorts and tube socks are fashionable summer attire for everyone: Wet Hot American Summer.

Wet Hot American Summer is one of those movies over which everyone obsessed for awhile that I didn’t find so funny. The movie certainly boasts a cast of fantastic comics, including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, and Molly Shannon; but nothing particularly struck my fancy when I watched it. At Camp Firewood in 1981, the summer’s almost over and the counselors have to resolve all their summer issues before the big talent show at the end of the night. Sometimes watching funny people be funny is all it takes, but this one didn’t do it for me (you will likely disagree with me).

Happy Campers (2001, dir. Daniel Waters)

Would you leave your children in the care of these counselors? Happy Campers.

Producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters, who brought us the magic that is Heathers, created the delicious ridiculousness that is Happy Campers. It’s yet another summer camp tale of “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” When camp director Oberon (Coen Brothers’ staple Peter Stormare) gets struck by lightning trying to ferret out deviant counselors, the college students working at Camp Bleeding Dove take over and make the summer their own. The movie’s pretty flawed, but it’s certainly entertaining. Brad Renfro (rest in peace), Justin Long, Dominique Swain, and James King (who for unknown reasons changed her name to Jaime King not long after Happy Campers released) struggle with sex, crushes, parental expectations, and unruly kids.

Honorable Mention: “Salute Your Shorts”!
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Camp, The Parent Trap, Sleepaway Camp.

What are your favorites? Why? Have any good summer camp stories to share?

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    I’m so glad that you mentioned Salute Your Shorts, but I really wish there had been room for the bizarre sexuality of Sleepaway Camp in here somewhere. Just sayin’, is all.

  • Julia Rhodes

    I mention it at the bottom. Haven’t seen it in years, so I didn’t feel equipped to write much about it.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    My mistake. I didn’t catch it in your article.

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