Review: ‘Summercamp!’

For better or worse, this docu successfully captures the experience of summer camp.

For better or worse, this relaxed docu successfully captures the experience of summer camp, which apparently has changed little over the past half-century. Without any discernable agenda, except perhaps its generous sampling of Flaming Lips cuts (co-director Bradley Beesley having collaborated on many of the band’s projects), pic drifts along to the rhythms of the camp’s physical activities and the emotional crises of salient campers and counselors. Opening July 18 at Gotham’s IFC Center after extensive fest exposure, docu’s lakeshore timelessness favors nostalgia over topicality, which may well constitute pic’s major appeal.

Helmers Beesley and Sarah Price introduce several of the pint-size dramatis personae in their homes prior to departure — lessening the confusion inherent in following particular kids amid the some 90 assorted youngsters enrolled at Wisconsin’s Swift Nature Camp.

Thus doc presents Spence, whom his dad dubs a precocious “little wise man,” and who will later state with utter matter-of-factness that to fit in at camp, one needs “to be funny, enthusiastic, athletic, smart … definitely smart.” He concludes, “I fit in well.” Initially unpopular girl Stephanie (aka Boo) admits a strong partiality for alligators (whether plush, plastic or remote-controlled), her predilection eventually seeming irrelevant as she effortlessly makes fast friends of the non-reptilian sort.

But pic’s most memorable characters are both loners. Cameron, overweight and overattached to his mother, at 14 rates as one of the oldest campers — quick to take offense and even quicker to attack and burst into tears. Then there’s Holly, a pretty blonde 9-year-old whose obsession with chickadees evolves from cute to tedious to frankly disquieting, her passion providing docu’s most stunning revelation.

By and large, however, Beesley and Price have created a kind of Everycamp, where girls play pattycake and sing innocuous songs and boys roughhouse and give each other wedgies. Almost nothing anchors the camp to any specific temporal context. The one obvious exception, the acknowledgement of kids on meds (one prepubescent lothario even uses it as a pickup line: “My doctor says I have the worse case of ADHD he’s ever seen”), serves almost as a cautionary warning of invasive modernism.

To a certain extent, pic’s lack of specificity is a reflection of the camp’s back-to-nature orientation, its refusal to allow computers or cell phones. Yet in choosing not to show camp-specific activities such as horseback riding — and including only conversations that, aside from occasional phrasing, might have stemmed from any era — the filmmakers have obviously targeted a wide, amorphous demographic of those whose camp days are firmly behind them.

Tech credits are polished. HD lensing lingers long on lake water shimmering in the sun.

Summercamp!

Production

An Argot Pictures release of a Roadside Cinema production, in association with Orchard Pictures. Produced by Devorah DeVries, Bradley Beesley, Sarah Price. Co-producer, JoLynn Garnes. Directed by Bradley Beesley, Sarah Price.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Beesley, Price; editor, Garnes; music, the Flaming Lips, Noisola; sound, Damon Cook; associate producers, Jen Small, Cook. Reviewed on DVD, New York, July 6, 2007. (In Toronto, Chicago, SXSW, Hamptons film festivals.) Running time: 84 MIN.

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