Ah, summercamp ... the place where parents send children to gain independence, commune with nature, engage in healthy outdoor activities, and make new friends. When you think about it, summer camp is really the perfect setting for a documentary: The socialization, the bullying, the friendships and alliances, the tug of freedom and beckoning adulthood against the hollow ache of homesickness. Toss it all in with some nasty-looking camp food, add some kids with engaging stories and diverse personalities, and you've got a brilliant recipe for a light-hearted but touching documentary film.
Filmmakers Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price tag along on a three-week session of nature camp at Swift Nature Camp in northern Wisconsin. Their goal: To capture summer camp, from the kids' perspective -- the good, the bad and the ugly. We meet some of the filmmakers' key subjects: Holly, age 9, who collects Beanie Babies and is obsessed with chickadees, and Cameron, an overweight boy who talks even before he leaves about how much he's going to miss his mother (she tells us in an aside that he sends her horribly guilt-inducing letters from camp). We meet Spencer, age nine, extremely bright and articulate, who is reading a Tom Clancy novel in his summer camp downtime, and Boo, an intelligent, hauntingly lonely girl who has come to camp because her parents want her to make some friends. At her school back home, she tells the camera she has no friends. None. There are the popular kids, and then there are the unpopulars, "which consists of one person -- me," she states matter-of-factly, only the tiniest waver in her voice giving away the depth of her pain.
Some of these kids are on meds, and quite a few, it seems, have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD (this is not a special-needs camp, though). There's nothing quite like watching an awkward adolescent boy making his move on a girl with the line, "My doctor says I'm the worst case of ADHD he's ever seen!" One of the counselors goes off scathingly on the issue of kids being medicated, saying that they keep the kids so busy at camp, going from 7AM to 10PM with activities, that they don't have time to be hyper and distracted.
Quirky music by The Flaming Lips and Noisola perfectly compliments the subject matter, and the film is well-edited, giving us a nice balance and overall feel for the camp with intimate moments beside each individual kid. The filmmakers do some subtle highlighting of the social differences between the boys and the girls at camp as well, which shouldn't shock anyone who was once a kid: The girls play hand-slapping games ("Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell ... ", bond through heartfelt conversations, and talk about how immature the boys are. The boys tend more to socialize through bigger boys giving the smaller boys wedgies (I've never understood the appeal of that, but perhaps you have to be an adolescent boy to grasp it) and perfecting the fine art of armpit farts.
Some of the older kids are glad to go to camp to have their first taste of freedom from their parents; even the kids who seem to be most homesick still appear to enjoy camp overall. The kids are so open and honest, it's hard not to like them and feel drawn into their stories. When Boo makes friends at camp, you can see a change in her -- she positively glows: If these kids like me and want to be my friends, she seems to feel, then maybe it's really not my fault the kids at school don't. She's the kind of kid you can picture becoming very artsy in a few more years, the type who (I fervently hope) will manage to retain her independent sense of self and embrace the ways in which she's different from the other kids. It's like she moves and thinks on a different plane, but somehow here at camp the barriers that keep her from being able to relate to and communicate with other children are swept away.
Stewart finds he fits in well; he's smart, funny, and athletic -- all qualities, he notes adroitly, that help him fit in. Cameron has a harder time. None of the boys in his cabin like him, and the more he's rejected and made fun of by his peers, the angrier he becomes. Cameron's story, actually, sheds light on why some kids like him have a really hard time moving through childhood. It's partly his personality -- he doesn't seem to grok the give-and-take of relationships -- and partly the other boys seeming to sense him as "different" and outright rejecting him (although, at least what we see, they seem more to ignore him than outright bully). But Cameron's counselor doesn't seem to have the patience or skills to know how to help Cameron or how to work with the boys as a group on acceptance. As so often happens with kids like Cameron, once the adults in charge decide he's trouble, he's judged more harshly than the other boys, gets in trouble for little things, and is forever having privileges taken away from him. He's pretty much branded "loser" and "troublemaker," and once that happens to a kid, at school or at summercamp, there's no going back.
Holly is a bit of an enigma. There seems to be a deep-set aura of sorrow about her, and she is positively obsessed with chickadees. When another cabin chooses the name "chickadees," Holly convinces the older girls to let her be their mascot. She draws chickadee pictures. She reads books about the birds. And she's always hunting for them, trying to get a look at the elusive little creatures. She talks about them, all the time, and she's often alone with her stuffed animals, who are more her friends than people. Towards the end of the film, though, there's a payoff on the chickadees that is the film's truest shining moment, and it's one of those rare, real moments that catches you completely off-guard and just punches you in the gut. Summercamp! is a peek at what summer camp is really like for these kids, but it's honesty and its heart are ultimately what take it beyond mere documentation and into intimate and well-done documentary storytelling.
For more on Summercamp!, check out Scott Weinberg's interview with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, who talks about the music for the film, and read Jette Kernion's review of the film from SXSW.