‘Camp’ modest in story, cinematic sophistication

By Gary Clift

At the beginning of “Camp,” a new indy movie currently playing at the local twelve-plex, there is a passage about the tough life of ten-year-old Eli (Miles Elliot). His mother doesn’t want him to leave his room in their shack of a house. She spends her time watching TV as she waits for her date to pick her up. When she’s gone, the boy comes out to look for something to eat, but there’s nothing in the kitchen.

Then his father comes home and is attentive until he realizes his wife has taken most of the cash he had squirreled away. Then dad becomes abusive, beating Eli with a broom handle until the kid has to be taken to the hospital. When next we hear of the boy, his mother is dead (of a heroin overdose, which seemed like the wrong drug) and his father is in jail, apparently for selling illegal drugs. Eli is in a foster home.

But by this point writer and director Jacob Roebuck’s point of view has swung. “Camp” is no longer Eli’s story. We will get some details that only camp director Tammy (Grace Johnston) would know. But mostly the story is investment advisor Ken’s.

Ken is a business success. He wants to add an old woman to his client list and she gives money to support an area summer camp—based on real life sessions organized by an outfit called Royal Family Kids—that gives foster kids a week in the country and matches each camper with an adult “counselor.” Naturally Ken volunteers to work as a counselor for one session. And naturally he drives himself up in his Porsche and keeps his cell phone around for business purposes.

Ken’s bad attitude about the week—that it is something he must get through to secure the management of the old woman’s money—makes him a bad and unpopular counselor. He pays little attention to Eli, who has become a thief and a misfit, except to exchange negative remarks with the kid.

As everybody else in the place seems to very nice (except for one quickly stifled bully), one can understand Eli’s disaffection. Besides, he can’t swim. And doesn’t want to disrobe, even in the relative privacy of the boys’ cabin. And distracted Ken is sure his kid must be the worst in the history of the institution.

Eventually some comments made by Tammy, an old high school classmate of Ken’s, and by a cartoonish ex-drill sergeant who is a fellow counselor get Ken to begin looking for small ways to be nice to Eli. He rigs a temporary changing room for the boy. He takes him for a ride in the Porsche, during one of the film’s three or four music montages.

It is the “eventual” part of the change that makes the movie go. Eventually Eli is won over enough so that he will appear at the pool in his swim trunks, though that means everyone can see the scars left from the beatings he has taken. Ken teaches Eli to swim (another montage) and they have some other social successes, in organizing a water gun raid on a girls’ tea party, for example.

This is a very simple story. And “Camp” is a simple movie, modest in cinematic sophistication and moral in a way that will have unprepared moviegoers thinking it anachronistic. But “Camp” is a better movie and a more thoughtful one than have been those in the series of evangelical films made in the south that have played in Manhattan the last ten years.

After the showing the audience in the theater was invited to an ice cream social at the First Assembly of God church. Apparently “Teen Reach” camp sessions like the one in the movie are held each year at Living Water Ranch near Olsburg.

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