It’s summer! And it’s hot! So to keep cool, maybe you’re hitting a chain theater to see the latest blockbuster or an indie theater to see the latest festival darling. Perhaps even better is taking advantage of a revival screening of a classic film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute or the Hollywood Summer Nights programs offered at the Ambler, County, or Princeton Garden theaters. Either way, summer is the perfect time to watch movies. This is the third in a series of lists to celebrate perhaps the most cinematic of seasons, each around a different theme (read the first one about heat waves, and the second about the end of school).
This week I am packing up my books, socks, flashlight, and pen knife; waving goodbye to mom and dad, and boarding a bus on a voyage away from civilization. I’m going to camp! Whether or not you have actual summer camp experience that is most commonly depicted on screen (for me, Boy Scout camp comes closest), there is a universality that makes these films resonate with a mass audience. Of course many summer camp classics end in bloodshed, but I haven’t actually seen any camp-set horror films, so I left them off. In chronological order:
- The Parent Trap (dir. David Swift, 1961)
Whenever I think of this film starring Disney darling Hayley Mills, that infectious Sherman Brothers song immediately bursts into my mind. Of course, this features double the Hayley Mills, as she plays twin sisters Sharon and Susan, separated early in their young lives and never knowing the other existed until they are serendipitously enrolled in the same summer camp. Once they transition from rivals to true sisters, they hatch a plot to change places in order to reunite their parents though the combined power of pranks and song. Spoiler: it works.
This is one of the more charming entries in Mills’ filmography, not just because she gives each sibling a different accent, but because the high concept literally maximizes the amount of charm she is able to bring to the screen. While the film is only partially set at Miss Inch’s Summer Camp for Girls, it still embodies the spirit of what makes a great summer camp movie. The characters very obviously learn a lot about their own identity, but they also have a better understanding of the experiences of others, and a sense of friendship that comes from meeting new people.
- Meatballs (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1979)
I don’t know if Meatballs is the origin of the “rich camp” versus “poor camp” narrative, but the idea of a group of underdogs uniting against a ‘perfect’ rival is a common theme for a reason: it works. It gives all of the characters in this film, from the jaded, too-cool Tripper (Bill Murray) to the unlikely hero Rudy (Chris Makepeace) a chance to be on the same side, and to support each other, which is the ideal version of camp. How else could “It just doesn’t matter” become a rallying cry, except at ragtag Camp North Star?
This film essentially sets the template for two more Reitman films starring Bill Murray. And while Ghostbusters adds a lot of other elements, Stripes is essentially Meatballs but about Army training camp. They’re both excellent, but this film hews much closer to reality than what would follow. There’s a sense of authenticity present in Meatballs that is enhanced by the loose feel of its editing which isn’t present in the comedies that would follow it. Those marry jokes and plot well, but Meatballs remains a lovable hangout film.
- Little Darlings (dir. Ronald F. Maxwell, 1980)
I only recently discovered Little Darlings thanks to the recommendation of a friend, and I am glad I was able to track it down to watch. Sadly, due to some music rights issues, it is unavailable through conventional means. It is a real shame because Little Darlings is the too-rare female sex comedy. Yes, there have been recent attempts at this take on the genre—the best of which is Easy A—but Little Darlings has its own distinct voice.
The core of Little Darlings focuses on two girls, the rough and tumble Angel (Kristy McNichol), and the upper crust Ferris (Tatum O’Neal) as they compete to see who will lose their virginity first while attending an all-girls summer camp. We are introduced to Angel as she nails a boy hitting on her squarely in the groin, which perfectly demonstrates her attitude toward the rest of the world. She is tough because she feels she needs to be, and when sexual intimacy becomes an immediate reality, she isn’t sure how to handle it. Ferris, for her part, sets her sights on Gary (Armand Assante), the much older camp counselor, and aggressively attempts to be seduced by him. Over the course of these adventures the girls have their expectations around sex challenged and come out of it a bit more wise to the world.
The way the film approaches sex is important. As in latter day Apatow-esque comedies, feelings and consequences are important in sexual matters. To that end—and I really cannot emphasize this enough—it does not punish the girls for their sexuality. It treats the subject seriously and honestly, but it does not judge them for it. Ferris certainly faces consequences for her advances toward Gary, but it mostly stems from how she chooses to handle the situation. It is also refreshing to see the kind of adolescent posturing common to films about the teenage boy experience applied to young women. Both Angel and Ferris are supremely confident in their approaches to life, and the other girls are eager to boast about their sexual exploits as well. To feel that both boys and girls are insecure about sex should not be a world-shaking idea, but here we are.
While the film treats sex seriously, I don’t want to undersell how much fun it is to watch. Angel and Ferris are surrounded by a Greek Chorus of campers who incite their rivalry as well as the comedic moments throughout the film. The apex of which is the hijacking of a camp bus to procure condoms after a frank discussion of the need for the girls to protect themselves, since they know better than to rely on boys for such preparedness. Yes, the aim is still a serious one, but trying to pry condoms out of a dispenser from a gas station bathroom in the middle of nowhere results in a well executed comedic setpiece.
- Heavyweights (dir. Steven Brill, 1995)
Like The Sandlot on last week’s list, this might be what I’d call a “general classic.” I’m sure it would connect with audiences who haven’t experienced it in heavy rotation on kid-focused TV cable channels. Not that it doesn’t have a pedigree of its own as Judd Apatow’s first writing credit. The film takes a similar plot to Meatballs except that the underdogs here are a fat camp and the goofy counselor is replaced with Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), TV infomercial fitness guru.
Perkis installs a new regime at the once-friendly Camp Hope (which was so lax it doesn’t seem like any of the kids actually lost weight). Eventually, the kids revolt and imprison him. There’s a ton of physical gags in the film, but I think the film’s messages resonate. There’s a sentiment among the campers that even if the focus is to get them to lose weight, they can relax because no one is the “fat kid” when everyone is. They bond over the struggles they face back home, and eventually leverage that to become successful. That combination of fun, camaraderie, and inspiration earns the film a spot on this list.
- Wet Hot American Summer (dir. David Wain, 2001)
This is a true cult film. While it had some buzz out of its Sundance Film Festival premiere, it was basically dumped into a minimal theatrical release. I didn’t see this for the first time until earlier this decade, so I’m not exactly sure how this film was seen by enough people to gain a reputation. Regardless, I’m glad it did. It uses the camp movie as a loose organizational structure for a long series of interconnected storylines, but is just as concerned with throwing as many comedic beats and gags at the audience as possible.
And it works because the cast is deep with charming, funny people. Part of the joke is that the counselors are all played by obvious adults rather than teenagers, but beyond Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, it was a cast of relative unknowns. Yes, Paul Rudd was the guy from Clueless, but Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, and others would only go onto success later. This has likely elevated the film, and rightly so. This is truly a strange film. It parodies both the camp film and teenage romance templates while also having a subplot around Skylab falling to earth. It is both earnest and absurd, and if you feel the slightest bit its vibe while watching, it will eventually win you over. The follow-up series First Day of Camp that Netflix did with new and returning cast members is also excellent (the second series, Ten Years Later hasn’t premiered as of this writing).
- Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson, 2012)
As a devoted acolyte of Wes Anderson this film holds a special place in my heart. Like Sam (Jared Gilman), I was sort of a misfit in my Boy Scout troop as well as a romantic, so he is a character I relate to quite a bit. Yes, Sam uses his return to Scout camp as an excuse for a romantic rendezvous, but the notion of going away to live in the wilderness, even the highly organized and regimented wilderness of Scout camp, is itself a sentimental calling. Additionally, Sam’s paramour, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is written as a very specific person, but also feels relatable. She has particular interests in terms of style and literature, but her headstrong certainty resonates. Best of all, both are recognizable as children, even if Anderson’s take on how actual children think and speak is far from realistic.
Unique among Anderson’s work, New Penzance seems like it could exist as a real place. The director has always had an eye toward the fantastic, but this New England isle feels more like somewhere that could exist in a way that Steve Zissou’s boat or even the Tenenbaum’s New York never could. Part of it is his eye for detail: maps, distances, and even books created for the film all add an air of reality to this otherwise fable-like story. They help suspend disbelief, creating enough data points to anchor oneself in this world. The blend here is perfect, and this remains one of his best films, capturing the feeling of youth in summer the way it ought to be.
Honorable Mention: Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (dirs. Bill Melendez and Phil Roman, 1977)
The main thing I remember about this particular Peanuts entry is that there was a huge water raft race. It seemed awesome and made me want to go to summer camp in the worst way.
That’s it lights out, Camp Cinedelphia and rest up for the next list in this series, which will really help you get away…
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.