The Tangled Coming-of-Age Potential of Summer Camp Movies

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The Tangled Coming-of-Age Potential of Summer Camp Movies

Summer camp exists in a parallel universe, floating just above reality, brief and just out of reach. Even if you were to visit the campgrounds frequented as a child, it would be impossible to recapture the transient magic of such a formative experience; filling the absence between school years, wedged between childhood and looming teenagerhood. Filmmakers have long been trying to make sense of the inconsistencies which define this time and place, capitalizing on the feelings which weigh this space down, anchoring it in adult memory. Summer camp movies lend the inexact, childish freedom associated with these places artistic heft.

Regardless of its many (many) oversights, Robert Hiltzik’s cult classic Sleepaway Camp understands how to position its setting, and balance the competing personal and filmic concerns, better than most other slashers of its era. The film slowly pans over the eerily empty Camp Arawak, and while the score builds steadily in the background the dominant sound is the fervor of the unseen children. After laying out the bunks and halls that will formulate the de facto neighborhoods and offices of this social experiment, the audience will never be offered a clear perspective on how this web of cabins connects. Almost immediately we are plunged into the campers’ frantic outlook, where every corner is tinged with the thrill prompted by these brief swells of independence.

Theater Camp, the new comedy from Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, takes advantage of this thrill to a different effect. While Sleepaway Camp, and its predecessor Friday the 13th, understood that the adolescent independence of the camp setting also forces childlike recklessness to ricochet around, tearing through campers with a painful ferociousness, Gordon and Lieberman see that this contained wildness also breeds its own shocking humor. Under their guidance the unpredictability of these summers feel warm and exciting, a microcosm of impending adulthood and all of its potential. Even in the film’s more caustic moments (after all, the plot is built around the camp’s owner falling into a life-threatening coma), Theater Camp’s intrinsic warmth is never really tested, unfailingly holding all the characters together. They are willing participants, rather than backed into a corner. 

A specific design choice which colors all of these sets, including Theater Camp, is the proximity to a body of water. Water is a perfect compliment to the summer camp, a place free of hierarchy, where adults and children have equal chance of being victim or victor. In ‘80s slashers, this setting holds deadly consequences, with characters perpetually on the verge of toppling in. But the deceptive evenness of water promises freedom to the children of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, all trailing around the island of New Penzance in canoes, circling Camp Ivanhoe in an attempt to find Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) an adult who would take them seriously. By the end, the couple is only granted clarity by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) when standing over a raging flood, threatening to subject themselves to it rather than conform to uncomfortable adult standards.

The restorative power of water has an underlying ruthlessness, a duality that defines camp as an idea, forcing filmmakers to remember it fondly or treat it as a threat. A lake—as bland and inviting as any featured in a camp film—can be spotted rolling in the background of Theater Camp, holding this place already in flux. Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) are ex-campers running AdirondACTS in its founder’s absence, both trying to honor the history while satisfying their young ambitions and saving the place from ruin. The buildings they grew up in remain static, slightly worn but still standing. In silly transitional moments we see how they have grown around the structures, learning the worn shortcuts and filling its empty corners. In the days leading up to their opening night, the resident techie Glenn (Noah Galvin) tears through paved and unpaved paths, running up grassy banks and rolling back down them to save energy. Once again, Theater Camp expresses the intangible loveliness of knowing somewhere so well that it almost grows around you, and you around it. 

But such history also traps its residents, leaving them stranded and caught in the glare of the unspoken past. Amos and Rebecca-Diane are both being held hostage by their nostalgia for their time at camp, neither one ready to graduate from the artificial freedom offered in camp to the real freedom, rife with strain and stress, of adulthood. Amos explains that “Summers come and go, but what happens on this stage? That’s eternal!” while the camera zooms in, catching the earnest nods from campers in response. Theater Camp’s mockumentary style serves the film in this way, holding up to the light the silliness and sadness of these grown-ups’ dedication to a place already gone.

Sleepaway Camp, famous for its final act twist, also positions camp as the pivotal point of its protagonists’ lives. When Angela (Felissa Rose) is revealed to be both the Camp Arawak’s killer and born as Peter, the film suddenly folds in on itself, turning into an unbroken reflection on a family’s tragedy. Eight years on, Angela’s father’s death (the film’s first scene) continues to ripple out, infecting the camp and reshaping the summer. 

The Parent Trap frames camp as similarly seminal in personal growth. Nancy Meyers structures her remake as successive love stories, both relying on Camp Walden to physically force people together and make an argument in favor of their shared love. Annie and Hallie (Lindsay Lohan) are sent there, unaware of the other’s existence, and forced to confront their tangled family tree. Gradually the geography of the camp shifts as they embrace one another. They go from being scattered across different cabins and mixing with different groups to being drawn together, moving past the lake and the mess hall into their isolated cabin and restamping it with shared memories. Angela leaves a trail of dead bodies; Annie and Hallie curate a succession of pranks, which see campers prodded and teased with less fatal consequences. In both cases, the people who have happened upon a complicated history are subjected to its dynamic, forever wrapped up in these histories.

In summer camp movies, camp is more than a break from day-to-day life. It is an artifact of the past—as a counselor puts it in Theater Camp, “At camp we have traditions!” There is something horribly inescapable and wonderfully reliable about having a physical space forever tied to growing up and testing the limits of childhood. A place between land and water, acting out fantasies of adulthood in a place overrun by children. Filmmakers will continue to claim camp as their ever-complicated stomping ground, transposing their tangled feelings about growing up onto this contained space.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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