You will not a find a more entertaining, heartfelt or unapologetically spirited documentary anywhere this year. You won’t. In fact, I dare you to try.
Because, seriously, Summercamp! is fantastic. It’s hilarious. It’s moving. It’s nostalgic and sentimental. It’s a total blast from start to finish. And my reluctance to us excessive punctuation is the only thing preventing me from ending each of those statements with an exclamation mark.
The film will draw inevitable comparisons to Spellbound because it has some similar themes, not the least of which is training its lens on quirky kids and watching them in the full splendor of their quirkiness. This time, though, the children in question aren’t learning to spell complex words, they’re packing up their teddy bears and favorite pillows to head off to sleep-away camp for three weeks. Following a group of Illinois campers from their homes to a Wisconsin nature retreat, the film features all the staples of camp life: activities, homesickness, cabin pranks, first crushes, frightful food and inter-camper conflict. A number of the kids become touchstones for the audience, including Holly (who has an almost obsessive appreciation for chickadees), Cameron (an overweight teen who’s the oldest boy in his group) and more than a few outsiders who love camp because it affords them the luxury of being themselves and making friends. There’s the boy who nonchalantly explains how his very-successful attorney father is never home, the kids who compare their levels of ADD, and the awkward young girl who laments that she has no friends at home.
You will laugh much more often than you’ll tear up during Summercamp! but, rest assured, you will get sniffly. If the more subtle moments of poignancy (a comforting bedtime story, a gesture of friendship, a woeful letter home) don’t get to you (like they got to me!), then one scene in particular – which comes unexpectedly and out of left field – should do you in. And that’s part of what makes the movie so great. It would have been easy for filmmakers Brad Beesley and Sarah Price to poke fun at their subjects, but instead they infuse the film with a gigantic, squishy heart, and the duo show a true love and appreciation for the kids they’ve been filming as much as the entire camp experience as a whole.
I heard some people at the Toronto Film Festival say they passed on this movie because they never attended camp themselves and didn’t think they could relate to the film’s content. I couldn’t disagree more! With all its joy and merriment, Summercamp! gently addresses universal themes like friendship, family, unity, heartbreak, fear and uncertainty. It is easily accessible to anyone, whether or not they’ve ever braided gimp, sung the “Baby Shark” song or slathered calamine lotion on a legful of mosquito bites.