Though spring may have barely sprung in some parts of the country, schoolchildren everywhere already have the summer sun in their sight-line, ready to toss aside their textbooks and dioramas and Number 2 pencils for the dewy grass and sparkling lakes that only a summer camp can provide. Haven’t already picked the one that’s right for you yet or just want to get a jump start on the seasonal spirit? I say it's never too early to check out some summer entertainment... man, I wish I still got summers!
Judd Apatow’s first foray into film was with the 1995 childhood classic Heavyweights, so it should be no surprise that has taken the "Best Film About Fat Camp" ribbon. Starring such comedic gems as Ben Stiller, Tim Blake Nelson, Allen Covert, and a young Kenan Thompson, Heavyweights centered on a group of overweight kids who get shipped off every summer by their fitness-crazed parents only to learn that this year the camp has been purchased by a weight loss entrepreneur who wants to use the camp as his own personal infomercial. Chaos-- along with some binge eating, junk food fighting, and makeshift obstacle courses-- of course, ensues.
For those of you who were theatre nerds, Todd Graff’s 2003 film festival hit Camp takes the "Best Drama (Camp)" ribbon and might just prove to be the right fit. Following a few teenage actor/singer/dancer hybrids through a summer of showcases, audiences are given a glimpse at the fickleness, and yes, even the friendship that comes out of such intense training and such close quarters.
Sometimes camp activities seem kind of lackluster; for the hours of fun lanyards never failed to provide, they were really just sharp cords of plastic. That doesn’t mean the counselors didn’t mean well, but perhaps—like in this next case—they were just too distracted with their personal lives to realize the free-for-all their organization had become. 1995’s The Babysitters Club featured a Before They Were Stars cornucopia (Rachel Leigh Cook, Bre Blair, Marla Sokoloff, Kyla Pratt, Scarlett Pomers, and even Schuyler Fisk) of characters who all had a million things going on besides the day camp they ran out of their backyard. Claudia had to pass her summer science course; Stacy fell for a much older boy; Dawn had to appease her next-door neighbor and fend off the geeky kid; and Kristy’s dad came back to town—a secret she tried to keep from her close friends and ended up bringing down the whole camp.
Though it received mostly negative reviews from critics who “just don’t understand” back during its 2001 release, Wet Hot American Summer has become the perfect cult comedy classic for those who really are "Too Old To Be At Camp and Just Want To Sleep Around." Set in the early eighties and compiled of improv comics like Janeane Garafalo, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and members of The State, Wet Hot American Summer is a very specific kind of humor (read: lots of non-sequiturs) centered on one very specific, and very assumed-to-be-universal problem: getting the girl before camp comes to an end.
Along similar lines is the Kristy McNichol/Tatum O’Neal cult classic Little Darlings about two friends who make a pact to lose their virginity during their time at camp. Just chaste enough (and just preachy enough in parts) for the 1980 censors, it’s a film that is nostalgic for adults but even suitable for tweens today. 1993’s Indian Summer, on the other hand, is one for the older audience, as thirty-something ex-campers reunite on the grounds at which they first met over a dozen years earlier. They reminisce, romance, and reassess the route their lives have taken.
1961’s The Parent Trap and 1995’s “update” It Takes Two are quintessential "Best Camp Gone Wrong" moments with both movies featuring a group of counselors and other administrative personnel who don’t seem to realize they have mixed up their campers. However the award for "Camp Gone Severely Wrong" has to go to The Burning (1981; a group of pranksters decides to target the creepy caretaker, only he is back at camp to wreak his own havoc) and its seeming-update Camp Slaughter (2005; stranded motorists stumble across a camp cursed to relive the same 1981 day over and over). The latter are only good in the so-bad-they-have-their-moments way and are not to be viewed by the squeamish, impressionable, or purveyors of taste, I might add.
Finally, for those of you who never felt you fit into one “specialty” camp or another or just longed to break free of parents and responsibility for the whole summer, Camp Nowhere is the absolute end-all-be-all must of this list. Starring Christopher Lloyd, Jonathan Jackson, Andrew Keegan, and Marnette (then Marnie) Patterson, it was a hit amongst the tween crowd in its 1994 release but has withstood the test of time as future generations, too, dream of conning their parents out of a couple thousand dollars and escaping to a lakefront cabin to host bonfires, play with fireworks, and engage in mud-wrestling competitions and pie-eating contests. Camp Nowhere is a tale about the strong friendships formed during a summer away, if nothing else, as kids from all social cliques mingled together and worked toward the one common goal of outsmarting their parents (and government authorities) by showing off four fake camps, back-to-back, in a movie climax that made countless adults jealous of the level of potential those kids inherently possessed.
And just so I don't get a bunch of angry comments/emails: yes, I'm aware I skipped over Meatballs, and yes, I realize it's a travesty, but yes, it was intentional, and no, I don't intend to rectify it. As if the three subsequent crappy sequels weren't enough, the studio suits have now decided to bastardize the original even further be remaking it. So I'm boycotting in the hopes that they think its fallen off our radar and therefore doesn't warrant a remake so then they will leave the original good one alone! In the words/voice of Chris Crocker: "Leave Meatballs alone!" But I digress.