‘Films To Be Thankful For’ is a column dedicated to providing mini-reviews for the films I am thankful were made, as they inspired me in some way.
In the opening seconds of my second ‘Film To Be Thankful For,’ we see a boy named Michael (Robin de Jesus) being beaten up outside his school prom for dressing in drag. We also meet Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), a music geek who’s brother really doesn’t think she’s anything more than a peon. The last person we’re introduced to is Vlad (Daniel Letterle), who comes off as a cocky, self-assured jock who happens to like acting. These three people are the lead characters in 2003’s Camp.
There are no spectacular camera angles or deeply moving dramatic performances, but this felt left a lasting impression on me because of how it tackled the theme of identity. The plot is pretty simple. There are 100 or so kids who attend Camp Ovation every year, and you follow individual characters as they meet, fall in love, fight, and discover themselves over the course of the summer.
In Camp, director Todd Graff worked extremely hard to paint the most realistic picture of what it’s like to be an adolescent in the early 2000s I’ve seen on screen. He isn’t out to make anyone look like a caricature. Instead, Graff opts for the most authentic version of these people as humanly possible. All the credit for this goes to the actors who make the portrayal believable.
Identity is a tough subject to tackle, but none of these actors do anything less than try to give voice to teenagers’ most aesthetic struggles at that time. Joanna Chilcoat’s Ellen is always worried she’ll never be pretty enough. Vlad is concerned with how his OCD will be perceived and craves being liked. Michael just wants to be accepted for who he is, not what the world wants to box him into. These are still serious issues plaguing everyday Americans and, more importantly, teenagers, which is so nice to see represented on film.
Beyond the representation existing in this film before it was the standard, it has deservedly become, the music is fantastic. Most of this is the result of Camp lifting musical selections that would be seen on Broadway or had already been put to film like “I Am Telling You” from Dreamgirls, “I’m Here” from Steven Sondheim’s Follies, and the spectacular cover of “Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch” by first-time actress Anna Kendrick.
This film incorporates style and substance within a tale of loneliness and lack of belonging, and that’s what makes the characters so rich. The songs they are singing while tied to the camp curriculum are all about how they feel inside. Movies are very good at displaying that in a dramatic context, but having it be part of a comedic movie musical is a rarity indeed.
The last thing I took away from Camp is probably its most important lesson: to unapologetically be yourself and let that be the dominant piece of your personality that shines through, showing everyone what a star you are. Growing up with a physical disability, without any representation of my own on the silver screen, that was a message that I needed to hear. I think it’s one that is still relevant today. Camp may not be a film for everybody, but it’s a movie that leaves itself open to be valuable to everyone who has a chance to see it despite it being a hidden gem. I will be singing its praises for a long time to come.