Camp (2003)

While Camp might not necessarily be a good movie, I can somewhat understand its appeal. Here is a film about a musical theater summer camp, one where relationships and performances go hand-in-hand. Most of the kids at the camp are outcasts, and they all have to go through their own minor coming-of-age storyline before the end. They’ll grow, either learning to accept their “uniqueness,” or to become more normal. How many movies about self-expression wind up favoring the latter?

The main character is Vlad (Daniel Letterle), who is, as far as we can tell, the only straight guy at this camp, which is populated almost entirely by gay males and females. Of course, he’s more sexually ambiguous than most people initially assume — the film toys with whether he’s really as sure of his sexuality as he thinks — for reasons that would be spoilers. He’s the lead because we spend the most time with him, although there are a series of other interesting, if shallow, characters we’ll get to know along the way. It’s more of an ensemble film about the camp experience than a character drama about Vlad.

I suppose claiming that we’ll “get to know” these other characters is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m not sure if I could name anyone else but Vlad without looking at a cast list online. It’s not so much that these characters aren’t memorable or unique; it’s that there are too many and there isn’t enough time to imprint them into your mind. Maybe you’ll personally relate to one over the other, and you’ll remember that character because he or she resonates with you, but I found it hard to remember them.

What you get with Camp is a series of “deep” conversations about how one character relates to another, interwoven with musical numbers that these children are practicing for. At this camp, a new performance is staged every two weeks, and that’s where most of their free time is spent: practicing. When not in rehearsal, they talk about their problems, what they want out of life, how they’re not appreciated in the “real world,” and so on and so forth.

Camp is going to work best for those of you who have felt this way before, or still do. I can understand why people would like to see a movie like this one. It’s broad enough to appeal to a large range of people, but it’s personal enough to find its chord with the people to whom it resonates. It walks a fine line, and does it moderately well if you find a character you really start to like, appreciate, or connect with. That wasn’t me, but I can understand how it could have worked.

The problem I have with it is that, because all of these different plots need to conclude by the time the film ends, and Camp isn’t even two hours long, most of these separate stories are rushed into completion. Or, sometimes, they conclude and then that character isn’t even seen from again. One such story is done by the one hour mark, and we see that character once more for the next fifty minutes. The growth occurs, but we don’t see any other situation to see if it sticks or works in other aspects of life.

The same is true of all but the main story. That one stays with us to the end, which has some revelations that will you re-think some of the actions of characters earlier in the film. I’m not sure if Camp is going to warrant a second watch, but some of the things you learn later on — even if characters lie, they are still interesting — do make you look back and ponder situations and interactions from earlier in the film. I’ll take that as a bonus with a film like this one. It could have played things more safely, but it gives you a little bit to think about.

Camp feels like a very amateur production. That works in its favor, and is part of the charm. The — pardon the pun — campy performances, a deliberately oversaturated and bright color palette, a failure to tie everything together, and a lot of energy — all of this makes the film a great big mess, but also more compelling than it could have been if it was simply competent. It’s kind of like a high school play: occasionally flashy and charming, even despite all of its faults.

If you’re not watching for a specific character, you come to look forward to whenever Camp cuts to a musical number. These are fun. If you like musical theater, you will probably enjoy these parts of the movie. The songs often have a point in relation to whichever character sings them, and while it’s very obvious, at least it’s there. And, hey, there’s even a cameo turned in by Stephen Sondheim. Chances are that if you just got excited about that, you should really seek out Camp right this instant.

Is Camp a good movie? I’m not even sure anymore. It has a target audience that will love it, and for anyone else, it’s watchable but nothing much more. There’s a certain charm to it that will keep most people interested, even if its ensemble cast and multiple storylines aren’t handled particularly well. These characters are interesting, and if you find yourself getting attached to one, there’s a good chance that none of the film’s flaws will matter. For me, Camp isn’t great, but I can certainly appreciate what it wanted to do.

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