Summercamp!

Summercamp!

I didn’t go into the documentary Summercamp! with a great attitude. I decided to give it a shot, though I kind of guessed it would be boring. I never went to summer camp, and though I know a few people who did, I never talked to any of them about it in more than a cursory fashion. It’s not a subject that ever stood out to me as all that interesting.

And indeed, this chronicle of three weeks at a Wisconsin summer camp did bore me to some extent, but there were also elements of it I clearly liked.

Definitely the best part of the film is the interviews with the kids (and to a lesser extent the counselors). When they’re questioned and they open up about things, and you get a chance to get inside them a bit, there are some really cool moments.

The most gripping one that comes from nowhere is late in the movie when a sweet little nine year old girl we’ve followed a little bit here and there decides she should open up to her cabinmates and counselors. So during that evening’s little pow wow when they’re all sitting in a circle sharing, she talks about the death of her father of cancer the previous year. And there’s something really impressive about the way she does so, the emotional depth she manifests at that age. Wow. You just want to reach into the screen and hug that precious angel.

There are also interesting bits where the kids talk about the different social dynamics at the camp compared to in their normal life. You sense that for a fair number of them, this is a chance to start over, a chance to interact with a group of people without being burdened by preconceptions of them based on whatever reputation they’ve—fairly or unfairly—acquired. A lot of these kids are nerds, they’re shy, they’re unpopular, whatever, but here they get a chance to be otherwise.

Some of them make the most of that chance, and some don’t. One little girl, for instance, who by all appearances seems like a cute, personable, sharp kid, relates matter-of-factly how she rarely talks to people at school, has no social life to speak of, etc., but at camp she’s got loads of friends and has a great time.

On the other hand, there’s a chubby fourteen year old boy who is picked on a lot at school, and who tends to gravitate toward much younger kids when he socializes at all. At camp he still doesn’t fit in. The counselors complain that he’s unfocused and their biggest disciplinary problem. When he’s not being ostracized or picked on by other kids, he’s ineffectually bullying them himself. He routinely breaks down crying, distraught over missing his mother.

He’s a kid in a lot of pain, and evidently he needs something more than what the camp experience can provide.

If there had been more interviews, more of a chance to hear from these kids directly, I’d have liked this movie a lot more. The parts that dragged for me were the scenes of camp activities. I understand we need some of that for atmosphere, but I was bored watching kids eat hot dogs, play cards, paddle a canoe, and all that.

I have a lot more tolerance for talking heads in a movie than most people do. Because of my own filmmaking style, I like to see people interviewed about their life and their emotions and such. I’d have preferred the camping scenes be reduced by maybe half, and for a portion of the remaining ones to function as visuals for voiceovers from the interviews.

One thing I’ll say about the kids is that, on average, they didn’t rub me the wrong way, they weren’t annoying. Whereas with, say, The Third Monday in October, I remember having to overcome a fair amount of resistance in order to like, or even be neutral toward, those kids.

It’s an environmental thing. Most kids are fine alone, but in an environment like a junior high school they’re assholes, like putting people in a mob. But by the evidence of this movie at least, I get the impression camp brings out more good than bad in kids. I mean, they have their little tiffs, and they act like jerks here and there, but mostly they’re happy, they’re getting along—they seem like good kids.

One disturbing thing that’s touched on in the movie but not explored in depth is how heavily medicated little kids are these days. Anybody who doesn’t concentrate ideally well (or isn’t as sedate and obedient as desired) is labeled as having ADD or ADHD and pumped full of pills.

It sounds like at the camp, they get away from that as much as possible. The number of kids on these medications is lower than it would be back home, as I guess the activities themselves keep them engaged and entertained and they have less need of the pills.

I will say I come away from the movie with a little more favorable impression of the summer camp experience in general. If I were a parent, I think I’d be a little more likely now to encourage my child to attend such a camp.

Anyway, it turns out it’s really not very interesting to watch a bunch of kids at a summer camp. On the other hand, to hear them open up when interviewed is sometimes quite fascinating. There’s probably not enough of the latter for me to recommend this movie.

But it’s a matter of taste. Summercamp! is a nice little film, and I think a fair number of people would appreciate its warmth and maybe not be as bored with parts of it as I was. (Plus there’s the nostalgia factor for those who attended a camp like this, which is a factor that’s not present for me.)

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