I was a Boy Scout. Every summer from the time I was 9 until 13, I spent two weeks at a summer camp in north-central Minnesota. You learn things at summer camp you can’t really learn anywhere else. I learned:
How to row a boat
Where to find wild raspberries.
Not all red berries are raspberries, even if some of the bigger boys tell you they are and that you should go ahead and try them.
How to deal with a stomach ache from eating the wrong kind of red berries.
How to play Mumblety Peg.
Why you should always wear shoes when you are playing Mumblety Peg even if some of the bigger boys tell you’re a chicken if you don’t play it barefoot.
How to lie to the Scoutmaster about how you got a knife wound in your foot because you weren’t supposed to be playing Mumblety Peg even with shoes on. (Hint: “I was walking in scratchy raspberry bushes” doesn’t really fool anyone.)
Despite learning some rather useless lessons like these, summer camp is an invaluable part of growing up in America and those memories are an indelible part of American childhood. That’s why movies about summer camp are so much fun. Here are my favorites.
Bill Murray is the camp leader and you’ve arrived in summer camp heaven. Rudy Gerner (Chris Makepeace) is a nerdy, lonely kid sent to a cheapo summer camp called Camp Northstar. It is lead by head counselor Tripper Harrison (Murray), in his first starring film role. Of course, there’s an evil rich kids camp, Camp Mohawk, across the lake and plenty of hijinks ensue.
This movie also marks Bill Murray’s first collaboration with director Ivan Reitman, with whom he went on to make Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984). This film was also another collaboration with Harold Ramis, who directed and co-wrote Caddyshack (1980). This movie is pure, unadulterated fun. Go ahead, rent it again, even if you don’t have kids. Watch it by yourself late at night and giggle to your heart’s content.
Okay, the troop doesn’t actually go to camp, but this movie has all the tropes of a summer camp movie. Shelley Long is a recently separated mother of a preteen daughter and she decides to serve as troop leader for a group of “Wilderness Girls,” who don’t really go out in the wilderness but mainly hang out in Beverly Hills and earn badges like Jewelry Appraisal and Shopping. There is again an evil rival group (from déclassé Culver City, natch). Marvelously clever script from SNL veteran Pamela Norris and Margaret Grieco Oberman. This is the ultimate girl movie.
This actually is a really good movie. It’s a sequel to the original featherweight The Addams Family (1991), which was based on the featherweight 1960s TV series. Now, I’m not saying this is a profound study of family dynamics. No, but it is a real gem of macabre humor. And we’re talking very macabre humor here. Not really a movie for little kids. More for older teens (or you after a long week at work in which you are having murderous thoughts about your co-workers). Wednesday and Pugsley get sent away to summer camp. It goes just as you think it might—oddly but with flair.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (the Men In Black series and Get Shorty), written by the screenwriter/novelist/playwright Paul Rudnick, and starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Joan Cusack, Christina Ricci, and Carol Kane. This is a powerhouse group of artists, and they all seem to be having the time of their lives in this movie. It’s a little bit campy, but well within the spirit of the original series, just darker and with much more bite.
For some reason, Ben Stiller has nailed the mean-spirited, self-absorbed, cruelly arrogant jerk character. (Thinking of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), Stiller was White Goodman, the evil owner of a rival gym.) The precursor to that character-type came in this movie: Tony Perkins Jr., a fitness-obsessed jerk who takes over Camp Hope, a muddling-along camp for fat kids that doesn’t really see any of the kids lose weight but still gives them a summer of fun and self-esteem.
As we’ve seen, every summer camp movie seems to need a mean guy and a rival camp. This has both, of course. It’s exactly what you want in a summer camp movie. Judd Apatow co-wrote this lively and fun Disney film, and the cast also includes SNL veteran Kenan Thompson when he was still just a teenager. A delightful movie to watch with your kids.
Back when my older three daughters were in high school, they raved on and on about this movie. Which surprised me, because it just looked like a really stupid camp movie. Well, it turns out that was the idea. This is a fantastic spoof on summer camp movies. It is a cult classic in and of itself, and spawned several sequels and a TV series on Netflix. The original is the best.
My favorite part is Christopher Meloni, the intense Law and Order: Special Victims Unit detective, doing an over-the-top turn as the camp cook/crazed war veteran. The cast also includes Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, and Molly Shannon. Nothing but fun. I’ve watched this movie maybe ten times. Laughed out loud every time.
Wait, what? A summer camp movie from Wes Anderson? That was my reaction when I first heard about this movie. And it turned out to be one of my favorite Wes Anderson movies. It doesn’t really have any of the usual summer camp movie tropes, but it is loaded with Anderson’s characteristic oddball style. This is actually more of a coming-of-age movie than a summer camp movie.
Two young teens, a boy and a girl, go off into the woods and pursue a chaste romance while their panicked parents and camp counselors hunt for them. It is one of the sweetest movies you will ever see. Co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola (Francis’ son), and starring a remarkable cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, and Bob Balaban. This is a great movie for your tween-age kids and you to watch together.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.