Away from the Ordinary
When you look inside, all you’ll see
Is a self-reflected inner sadness.
Look outside, I know that you’ll
Recognize it’s summertime.
—The Flaming Lips, “Summertime”
I kind of just miss the sound of waking up in the middle of the night, just the hallway fan going, just seeing my room there. When I wake up at camp, I see this just dark room.”
“I like animals because they’re all different in their own ways,” says Bailey, from Chicago. “I think most animals are a lot cooler than humans just because humans are just like pink blobs with no defenses.” Bailey’s on her way to sleepaway camp, one that features a nature center stocked with gerbils, guinea hens, and lizards. She says she found it in the Chicago Tribune magazine one day, knowing that summer was approaching and she had nothing planned. Asked whether she’s had “any anxiety” about going to camp for three weeks, Bailey scrunches her nose. “Not really, because I’ve never been one to cling to my parents a lot. Sometimes I like getting away from home just to see new things and get away from the ordinary. But you have to kind of stick through the difficult parts of being homesick and not being best of friends with everybody in the camp.”
Poised and thoughtful, Bailey is one of several kids at the center of Summercamp!, Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price’s documentary about Swift Nature Camp in northern Wisconsin (platforming in theaters this summer, it’s also available on DVD). While the campers surely lack “defenses,” they are also frequently resilient and imaginative, remarkable young people trying to make sense of each other, adults, and the rituals of camp. Arriving by bus, they unload their backpacks and suitcases—some larger than the children hauling them—their faces determined and their hopes delicate. Divided into cabins, they find their ways to their bunks, where they arrange their cut-off shorts and books on cubby shelves. As kids make adjustments, counselors make announcements (“It’s spaghetti night,” “No laptops… because we don’t have stuff like that”). It all looks a lot like you remember it, whether from experience or the movies.
But for all the conventional images in Summercamp!—woodsy hikes and campfires, paddles and canoes, cafeteria lines and bowls of lime green jello—the film, featuring aptly quirky and grindy music by the Flaming Lips and Noisola, shows some others you may not have seen before. One boy interrupts a fishing expedition with a plaintive, strangely calm cry (“I got a hook in my eye, go get help,” after which a witness explains, “It stinks for that kid”), and the notice board listing names for the Wednesday Night Talent Show includes an unusual talent (“Pull pool rack over myself,” which this especially skinny kid goes on to demonstrate a few scenes later). Though boys do what you expect (they make arm-farts, they give each other wedgies, as a girl rolls her eyes: “The boys are more immature, I’d say”), they also don’t. Spencer reveals that he prefers reading books to TV: “I read the dictionary a lot.”
Camp serves various purposes. Freckled Boo admits, “My parents wanted me to come to get some friends, to see if anyone lived in my area,” while another girl takes a veteran’s view: “Parents can be annoying. Cats and dogs can be annoying, so you just need to come here. All your friends are here and it’s fun because you’re always around them.” Blond-headed Tyler declares himself “a total outdoors guy. I just love to swim. I work on my pecs.” He pauses here, then explains: “‘Cause my mom’s a body builder and she expects me to be big, huge. She uses the word ‘huge’ a lot.” Like many of the interviewees in Summercamp!, Tyler has a particular relationship with his mother. “Me and my mom get along so well together,” he says, “because I don’t have a dad. He went on drugs when I was littler and he just ran away and I’ve only seen him once so far. You see, her and my dad weren’t exactly married. I was an accident. I was just an oops.” He smiles and shrugs.
No matter their specific backgrounds, the children handle themselves. That’s what camp forces, a kind of reckoning day-to-day. Whether they conform or act out, they find their own ways to get through the increasingly longer days. (As one counselor puts it near the end of the stint, “I feel like shit, just burned out.”) Some campers—an alarming number, it seems—have been diagnosed with A.D.D., and dutifully take their meds, the older ones in charge of making sure younger ones keep to schedules (“Without drugs,” sighs one, “I’d be bouncing off the walls”). Camp can help: “A.D.D. goes away at camp,” observes a counselor. “We run these kids ragged from seven in the morning to 10 at night.” And camp can create or enhance pressures. Fourteen-year-old Cameron, repeatedly in trouble for fighting with other kids or pressing his luck with counselors. He’s in tears more than once, and misses his mom—lots. “The kids called me stupid and dumb, I don’t know, just ‘cause of my weight,” he says. All they’d have to do is leave me alone, so I could level myself out.”
Again and again, Cameron is disciplined or comforted by counselors. If he’s annoying to his fellow campers (during a hacky-sack game, his foot ends up in another boy’s crotch), he’s also plainly struggling, wanting to fit in but angry that he feels so rejected (“It sucks now,” he observes, “but it doesn’t have to suck for the rest of my life”). The film sets Cameron off against big-eyed, nine-year-old Holly, who introduces herself as bored at home in Aurora, Illinois. “I want to go to Hollywood. California. One of the two.” At camp, she’s contemplative and mostly precise, fond of chickadees (asked why, she catches her breath and declares, “It’s kind of hard to say”), and eager to please (she asks a camp director, “Do you need any assistance?”, then proceeds to straighten out all items on display in the gift shop). Holly describes her collection of beanie babies as “eight little friends that I can put in my pocket.” She likes to talk to them, Holly says. “They’re pocketable, so whenever you’re alone, you can just pull them out of your pocket.”
It’s clear by the end of Summercamp! that, while the counselors work hard at coming up with distractions and community-making activities—the pair-races, sloppy-joe eating contests, tile-painting talking-stick group encounters—the kids are on their own and they know it. Less sweet than astute, the movie hints gently at this insight, allowing the kids to describe themselves and their own dilemmas. Respectful and perceptive, Summercamp! isn’t quite what you expect.