MOTIF(F): Summer Camp Cinema
You never forget your first time at camp
Welcome to MOTIF(F), a weekly unpacking of a film trope we love. This week, we ask: are summer camp movies better than the real thing?
It’s hard to believe that it’s every kid’s dream to be separated from their family and forced to live in a dark, small, amenity-free house filled with complete strangers and new, exciting insects. But the coming-of-age experience that is summer camp is at once bizarre and eternal. It’s everything about youth — all of its highs and lows — compacted into six weeks of homesickness and sun-stroke.
At least, as far as I can tell. I have never been to summer camp, really. I mean, apart from one week at a gymnastics camp that was light on the s’mores and campfire songs, heavy on the eight-hour training sessions and took place at a Muskoka sports camp whose mascot was, inexplicably, a moose. The only thing I learned was that tennis kids were weird and my growth spurt would soon squash my Olympic dreams. But don’t worry, when it comes to the old-fashioned ideal of summer camp, I’m intimately aware of what I’m missing.
From the moment an 11-year-old me watched Nancy Meyers’ The Parent Trap at a girl named Amanda’s matinée birthday party, the Hollywood fantasy of sleepaway camp would live in my mind exactly as it seemed at Camp Walden.
Meyers’ is a seasoned pro at creating interiors that haunt my fantasies. Her films present a life that seems at once relaxed and luxurious. Her Camp Walden is made up of perfectly landscaped paths dotted with rows of pine cabins, a bright American flag over each door. The mess hall walls are adorned with old framed photos of sturdy east-coast women in vintage swimsuits. Silver cups won for skills in sailing and field hockey get dusty, but never tarnish. Meyers’ summer escape for girls is as much a postcard for Maine, as it is for classic summer basics in hunter green and light khaki (even the idea that my whole summer could be colour-coordinated — it makes me weak in the knees just thinking about it).
Irrationally, part of me believes I went to Camp Walden in real life. Probably because it marked the first time in my life that the “idea” of a childhood caught up to me actually living my own. Through cinema, experiences could now be abstract. There was my “childhood,” but now there was this new, terrifying, “idealized childhood”—outdoorsy, fun, and as white as Lohan’s pre-spray tanned face. The impact The Parent Trap’s first 20 minutes had on my young mind cannot be overstated: for now and forever, summer camp was rich kids taking fencing lessons and skinny-dipping into moonlit lakes after losing in a hand of strip poker.
Maybe it seems odd that an adult would admit to being so affected by a '90s switcheroo comedy about two twin girls. Ones, who separated at birth by callous parents and implausibly sent to the same summer camp where they plot the reunion of two people whose divorce was so amicable and enviably bourgeois, that they live on different continents and pretend the other is basically dead. Introducing the world to Lindsay Lohan, The Parent Trap remains a perfect specimen of an essential cinematic genre: the summer camp movie.
Summer camp is family tradition for a certain type of family. You go to a camp because your parents went there. Or even because your grandparents went there. It’s a manufactured but incredibly shareable experience. I can’t hand over my childhood to my kids, but I can send them to the same place, to swim in the same lake and sing the same songs. It makes perfect sense that my ideal summer camp movie is also a remake.
The 1961 original starred Hayley Mills as Susan and McKendrick, introducing the schtick of having one actress play both sides of the twinship, rather than the more logistic-friendly Olsen Twins route. Seeing nearly the same dialogue come out of a 1960’s Hollywood child star as she rows in a canoe or scoops food at the mess hall is weirdly soothing. Like summer, camp movies never go away and the conventions of the genre never really change. I can’t wait until North West stars in our children’s The Parent Trap, out summer 2024.
As Wet Hot American Summer proves, there are enough Meatballs knock-offs and summer B-movies out there to create some pretty compelling satire. Not all camp movies are created equal, but they do all follow a comfortable and reassuring pattern. There are rules to a successful summer camp movie. And just like the boys on the other side of the lake, every good camp movies know when to break them.
SIDEBAR: CAMP MOVIES THAT ARENT REALLY CAMP MOVIES AT ALL Moonrise Kingdom: Fails at being a good camp movie, but only because it turns into a pretty decent western.
Friday The 13th: Nails the locale but is still just a bad horror film, no matter how you slice it.
It Takes Two: So close to The Parent Trap in story, but really falls under the category of "Olsen Twins movie." Yes, they get their own genre.
Wet Hot American Summer: Sacrilege! I know! But a summer camp movie is about the campers, not the counselors. Don’t worry, it will always be the best meta summer camp movie, hands down.
SUMMER CAMP CREDO #1: MAKE AN ENEMY
Like sunburns after a swim test, rivalries at summer camp are real — and they are intense. Does it make sense that two girls would wage an all-out prank war once they realize they are literally identical? Of course not. But heatstroke and blackflies will make you hate anyone.
The oppressive heat of summer is perfect for festering grudges. Foes are everywhere, just waiting to tip your canoe. They can come from a wealthy camp across the lake, like Meatballs’ Camp North Star’s rivalry with Camp Mohawk. Escalating nicely throughout the summer, this is one of the many 80’s films that made me think pantsing was going to be a bigger thing to watch out for in life.
You can also choose to rage against the establishment itself. Heavyweights’ fat campers are completely in the right when they throw a deranged Ben Stiller in an electric cage after he inflicts one too many of his psychopathic fitness ideologies on them. Sometimes, I feel this way about my yoga teacher.
Generally, class war is the typical flavour of these grudges, but in a movie like Troop Beverly Hills where the rich kids and their wonderfully ostentatious leader are the underdogs, this dynamic can get flipped entirely on its head. This underrated classic (screening July 30th at TIFF Bell Lightbox) highlights what those of us who never made it to summer camp know well: outdoorsiness is its own kind of members-only club. (When did every kid acquire a fleece vest and hiking boots? That was never on my shopping list. This Girl Guides day trip is the worst!) But just because you don’t have the wilderness skills, doesn’t mean you aren’t a good scout. Those girls could really sell some cookies. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/-TogGxzlfhM
SUMMER CAMP CREDO #2: YOU’LL HAVE ALL THE FEELINGS
With all the whispering between bunk beds, fireside confessions and matching poison ivy rashes, camp is uniquely constructed to make any new friendship feel intense. The movies make it seem like nothing is more intimate than secrets shared under a dense blanket of wild pines and starry sky. The reality that your friendship (or blossoming relationship) will soon be cut short only makes it more important. From within the throes of camp, the expectation grows thatthis is the summer when everything changed.
Take Dirty Dancing, a movie that doesn’t know it’s a summer camp movie, but might be one of the greatest. Over the course of what is essentially summer camp for WASPS, Baby (played by Jennifer Grey) learns to dance, make new friends and discovers hidden truths about black market abortions. You could argue that it’s her relationship to Johnny that changes her life forever, but that’s honestly giving too much credit to the experience of losing your virginity.
This is a theme that the summer camp classic Little Darlings uses in very 80s fashion. The film has two 15-year-old campers make a bet to see who can lose their virginity first, while the rest of the girls camp pick sides and place bets on the outcome. Rest assured, many lessons are learned — about love, and about our bodies.
But back to Dirty Dancing —it’s Baby’s friendship with Penny, at first unlikely due to class differences and what in a lesser movie would have been a love triangle. While Patrick Swayze is able to catch her in his arms (with time and many montages), Penny is the person that pulls Baby out of her element and makes her brave.
In Nancy Meyers’ The Parent Trap, it’s only when Hallie and Annie are isolated in a cabin together that they can take far too long to realize that yes, they look the same, and cool, they have the same birthday and like the same Oreo-peanut butter combo, so oh hey, maybe we’re twins? (Of course you are.) It’s absurd but seems like just the type of life-changing camp relationship that seems dangerously unconcerned with the likelihood of bears being attracted to all these cookies and peanut butter.
SUMMER CAMP CREDO #3: THIS ISN’T REAL LIFE, IT’S CAMP
Beyond scraped knees and snake bites, summer camp is the opposite of danger or lasting consequences. You’re in a controlled environment with organized fun and the only adults are horny teenagers. In a summer camp movie, no one really gets in trouble, even if they should.
Camp Nowhere has a group of CHILDREN live by themselves in the woods with a strange man, while their parents think they are paying for a perfectly good sleepover camp. Do they get brought up on fraud charges? Not that I saw.
In Heavyweights, the kids literally electrocute their camp leader and keep him locked in a cage. It’s like an early script for Zero Dark Thirty. Their parents are completely okay with letting their kids stay on at the camp under a new leader. Good. Keep those psychopaths in the wilderness. Maybe by fall, they’ll be rehabilitated.
Even when things get adult — are all camp counselors hooking up? — it’s always playful and harmless. The sunny skies of summer are all about good times with no consequences. Quite notably, no one went to camp in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Should there be a penalty for the twins of The Parent Trap after they fly under false passports and make their parents culpable to double-kidnapping? Maybe. But it sure would be a bummer way to end the summer.
SUMMER CAMP CREDO #4: USE YOUR NEW CAMP SKILLS TO HATCH A BRILLIANT PLAN
The backbone of any summer camp activity is all about building character. Beanbag tossing? Archery? At first they may seem like throwaway skills to keep campers busy while your counsellors get to second base, but these pointless activities are actually preparing campers for covert operations.
What happens if you find yourself launched into space? You better believe that space camp will have taught you all you need to know to return safely from what is a legitimately horrifying situation. (Seriously, space is the worst. Look what it did to Sandra Bullock.)
Need to enact revenge that is both terrifying and political? It’s a good thing all those kids in Addams Family Values took the optional archery lessons, or the flaming arrows would have not burned down that Thanksgiving Day set with such dramatic flair.
In the summer camp movie, plans will be hatched, schemes will be devised and Rube Goldberg Machines will be armed. Maybe you won’t get to make detailed floorplans of your home so your long lost twin can infiltrate under cover, but chances are, all those skills you were picking up throughout the summer, they’re going to come in handy before you know it.
SUMMER CAMP CREDO #5: THE KIDS WILL ALWAYS WIN
In a camp movie, it doesn’t matter how improbable the scheme, or terrible the English accent, kids always win. Whether they are trying to reunite their family (noble), or just have a lot of fun (understandable), at its core these films are an ode to childhood. It’s the last time kids can be kids and the rules don’t apply. So, no matter what, at the end of the summer kids rule, parents drool and... I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.
Catch The Parent Trap, Troop Beverly Hills and more great TIFF Kids Classic movies all summer long, only at TIFF Bell Lightbox.