As a relative newcomer to The A.V. Club staff, I've been lucky to score two elusive film review assignments in the last few months. While most people wouldn't consider themselves lucky to see Delta Farce and Who's Your Caddy? I'm a firm believer in starting at the bottom and working your way up in any walk of life, whether it's plumbing, blacksmithing, or film writing. Of course, "up" at this point could mean an Adam Sandler comedy about how it's funny to be gay and shit, but the novelty of writing about the dregs of cinema is still there for me. And I will always hold out hope that the shitty-looking comedy I'm about to see isn't as shitty as it looks.
Still, it's always nice to write about a movie that's actually good, especially when it's an endearingly sweet documentary that's flying below the media radar. Unlike another documentary playing in theaters this summer that begins with the letter "S", Summercamp! doesn't put the filmmaker front and center as an obnoxiously omnipresent guide telling the audience what to think. In fact, Summercamp! is a refreshingly old school (some might say passé) kind of documentary; there are no overplayed agendas or snarky cheap shots, just a careful and nuanced examination of a cast of complicated characters. Maybe that's why Summercamp! is slowly working its way across the country–it plays Portland, Chicago, L.A., and Seattle in the next several weeks–instead of playing arthouses in every major American town like the execrable This Film Is Not Yet Rated or some other shallow Michael Moore rip-off.
As the title oh-so-subtly suggests, Summercamp! is about one of our country's most enduring kid traditions, the three-week summer getaway up north. Starting with a group of about 95 elementary and junior high school kids–93 of whom seem to be taking some form of ADD medicine–Summercamp! ends up focusing on two troubled children: Holly, a charming little pixie who is harboring a tragic secret; and Cameron, an annoyingly fascinating 14-year-old fat kid who aggressively jockeys for attention but only succeeds in making everyone hate his guts—even the college-age counselors, who surely were having sex and getting slaughtered by masked killers when the cameras weren't on. Think Vincent D'Onofrio's character from Full Metal Jacket without dead R. Lee Ermey in the latrine.
Filmed at a northern Wisconsin youth retreat in the summer of 2003, Summercamp! is one of the better depictions of childhood I've seen in recent years. It penetrates the camp's kiddie culture, showing how the caste system of popularity is reconfigured when you leave your school and meet up with a different group of peers, and then quickly (often cruelly) locked back into place. If you went to camp as a kid, Summercamp! will inevitably make you nostalgic for a time when being away from your parents for a few weeks was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. But it will also make you glad that childhood can now be observed—even enjoyed—from the relative comfort of adulthood. Of course, there was no way in hell I could enjoy the scene in Summercamp! where a cabin full of boys talk about how many girls each one has kissed. (This was exactly the kind of conversation I dreaded more than anything in the world until I was at least 18.)
Summercamp! was co-directed by Brad Beesley, a frequent collaborator with The Flaming Lips, and Sarah Price, perhaps best known for working with Chris Smith on The Yes Men and the classic doc American Movie. Price used to live in my hometown of Milwaukee, and I talked with her recently about Summercamp! , which can also be purchased on DVD at summercampmovie.com.
The A.V. Club: Did you have a problem keeping the kids from acting out for the cameras?
Sarah Price: Yeah. [Laughs.] The first couple of days were just maddening because they were always coming up to the camera lens and goofing off, making faces, stuff like that. But after three or four days, we knew who were going to focus on and narrowed it down to about five girls and five boys. By that time, the kids were pretty adaptable and just started ignoring us and going on with their lives.
AVC: Are kids tougher to film than adults?
SP: I think they're easier. They're less self-conscious. A few of them weren't. I started filming the older girls' cabin, and they're all very MTV-savvy. They were really a pain in the ass. [Laughs.] So I stopped filming them after a while.
AVC: You had a set group of kids to film during a set period of time. How did you know you would have a movie after shooting for three weeks?
SP: We didn't. We tried to make it as cheap as possible to just do it. It was three weeks, it was a finite amount of time, and that's something we were both interested in doing because we had been working on different projects that had been going on and on for years. One of the things that was really appealing about this is we'd go up, we'd shoot, and what we got is what we got. That's part of the challenge of verité filmmaking, you're just following your instincts. And out of that comes who knows what.
AVC: You end up focusing on two troubled kids, Cameron and Holly. How did you settle on those stories?
SP: Originally, Brad was going to film the boys and I was going to film the girls. But pretty quickly it became clear that, at camp, kids are just running everywhere. I primarily followed the girls, but if Cameron came running out of the woods I'd pick him up and start filming, and then Brad and I would touch base throughout the day about what we were getting and who we were getting. With Holly, all I knew was that something was going on with her. I followed her as much as the other kids, and Brad followed Cameron as much as the other kids. But toward the end, once Cameron and Holly round this corner, it became clear what the focus was going to be.
AVC: Did you have certain themes or subjects you wanted to explore going in?
SP: On one hand we had these expectations, and on the other we were trying to stay open to what everybody was going through. Having been to camp as kids, we had expectations about what was probably happening at camp, based on our own experiences. People ask Brad if he went to camp, and he's like, "Yeah, I went to Jesus camp for four years in a row." And he ended up just making out with girls the whole time. I went to a camp in Michigan where they were rewarding us with Mountain Dew, so we were jacked up on sugar. So we expected that would happen. But not a lot of that was happening, at least not as much as we thought.
AVC: The film takes a brief detour to talk about the pervasive use of ADD drugs among the kids. How did that come up?
SP: That was one of the things we didn't know about until we were there. One of the kids started using it as bragging rights, trying to impress this girl by saying, "My doctor says I have the worst case of AD/HD he's ever seen." [Laughs.] We didn't go into it too much, but we definitely wanted to hit on it because it was a little shocking how many kids were on meds. Personal beliefs aside, that's definitely something people should be aware of.
AVC: The most successful documentaries from the past several years have been made by filmmakers who put themselves at the center of their films. How do you feel about that style?
SP: I don't mind it. It's just a style. It's like fiction films, where one person does romantic comedies and the other one does action thrillers. It's two different styles under the same umbrella term. If I were as clever and quick-witted as Michael Moore, maybe I'd be doing it, too. But I'm not. [Laughs.] I'm far more boring.