Camp Movie Review

If movies were the only thing we had to go on, nobody in their right mind would go to a summer camp. You either wind up with an axe in your back or spend two weeks with dim-witted counselors wearing ill-fitting shorts who Just Don't Understand Kids. There's oppressive heat, poison ivy, and lots of god-awful dialogue. So it's to Todd Graff's credit that he tried to make a summer-camp movie that gleefully tries to tweak the genre's conventions. Camp refers to its subject - a summer camp for teenaged would-be Broadway stars - as well as to the inherent silliness (i.e. campiness) of the summer-camp genre. In Camp, characters pointedly don't do the things they usually do in movies. But it's so over-earnest in its approach that the results aren't much fun.

Camp's story centers on three young performers attending Camp Ovation: The sincere but unconfident Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), the cross-dressing Michael (Robin De Jesus) whose homosexuality ires his parents, and the charming yet arrogant hunk Vlad (Daniel Letterle). Vlad has a winning smile and a straight-boy bravado that everybody else at Camp Ovation lacks, which makes him the subject of a half-dozen crushes. But there's work to be done: The assembled kids have to put on a new production every two weeks, managed by Bert (Don Dixon), a washed-out alcoholic whose stage successes are years behind him.

A lesser movie would have a grandiose AA conversion for Bert, a loving family reconciliation for Michael's family, and a lot of "impaler" jokes about Vlad. Still, Camp is boilerplate filmmaking, stuffed with familiar lessons about friendship and chasing your dreams (a cameo from Stephen Sondheim wraps up matters in a tidy bow). The attempts at humor generally fail to hit their marks. You can only get so much comic mileage out of an overweight girl with her jaw wired shut, or dressing up black children like Hasidic Jews. In the worst case, one girl takes some ghoulish revenge on her bullying roommate by spiking her drink with Woolite. I'm unwilling to test this myself, but it's my guess swigging such a concoction leads not to some entertainingly-timed puking, but a rush to the ER, stomach pumping, and the closure of Camp Ovation.

All of this wouldn't matter so much if the acting weren't so mediocre. Director Graff proudly states in the production notes that he wanted untrained actors in Camp for the sake of authenticity. This practice needs to stop. There's nothing charming about watching young actors at sea in their roles; indeed, you feel a little sorry for them, the way you do flipping through calendars where cats have been dressed up like society matrons and sea captains. When Bert drunkenly berates the batch for harboring hopeless dreams and wasting their time on performing, it's supposed to underscore how angry and damaged Bert is; instead, you're pondering whether the man has a point.

Yet many of Camp's flaws are mooted during the musical numbers, which are all marvelously performed - it's the one aspect of the film that Graff and his cast truly throw their hearts into. Taking scenes from Dreamgirls and Promises, Promises, the movie catches some fire and fun, and it shows that the kids in Camp are genuine talents. Musicals are inherently campy: They feature adults acting like children singing about adult things, so teenagers are perfect for such roles. So it's ironic that they're so unconvincing when they have to act like teenagers, like themselves. But not ironic in a freewheeling, campy sort of way. Just ironic in how disappointing it is.

Extras on this flamboyant DVD include a live cast performance, making-of footage, and a collection of deleted scenes.

Camping is fun! Who's ready for s'mores?

Comments

Camp Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, 2003

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