Camp Nowhere (1994)
Dir. by Jonathan Prince
Starring Jonathan Jackson, Melody Kay, Andrew Keegan and Christopher Lloyd
Tired of being sent to boring summer camps by their parents, three teenagers blackmail a former drama teacher into helping them con their parents into sending them to a fake camp that he will “run,” while they use their parents’ money to have fun all summer. Soon, half of the school is in on the con, and Camp Nowhere is born. However, they have to scramble to pull off an even bigger con when the parents demand to have a day to visit – and each of them expects to see a different type of camp.
I saw this in theaters when it first came out. I was 12 years old at the time, the perfect age for the movie. I don’t remember if we had it on video or not. I’m leaning towards not, because while I have a fair bit of recollection of it it’s not one of those movies that I remember chapter and verse.
The year before this movie came out, I crossed over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. That gave me my first opportunity to attend a Boy Scout summer camp. I’d been to day camps before, and a couple of weekend-long camping trips, but this was the first time that I spent an entire week away from my parents. It was a rocky first experience (there was some staff-on-camper bullying involved), but it was the start of a long string of regular summer camping for me that lasted until I went away to college.
I think that’s why this movie resonated so much with me at the time. I was really into Scouts and camping for a long time, and quite a few of my favorite kid-oriented comedies from this time period (Heavyweights, Bushwhacked, etc.) involved camping in some way. None of these movies did particularly well at the box office, and have mostly been forgotten, but I was pretty much the exact target audience for them.
Of course, looking back at them as an adult, it’s clear to me exactly why they didn’t succeed with audiences or critics. For most of its run time, Camp Nowhere is pretty much just scene after scene of teenagers goofing off. There’s also some mildly uncomfortable cringe humor thrown in as the main character Mud and the teacher (played by Christopher Lloyd in full Christopher Lloyd mode) attempt to con various authority figures into believing that there’s nothing going on at the camp. I’ll admit that scenes like the dinner sequence, where Mud and Lloyd are improvising a fake father-son relationship while Lloyd has a dinner date with the doctor that treated Mud’s injured arm earlier in the film, are mildly triggering to me now, and I had to mute that particular scene until it was over. One too many bad experiences being put on the spot by teachers in high school, I guess.
And, of course, there’s the matter of the reckless endangerment of children. The aforementioned injured arm occurred due to an accident involving unsupervised use of fireworks. The kids are walking around with chainsaws, riding dune buggies, and doing who knows what else with all of the money that their parents paid to send them to camp. This was all super fun to see when I was a kid myself, of course, but now I’ve been through multiple Youth Protection training classes as an adult Scout leader, and I live in a house with two young children. I don’t really find many of the antics in the movie funny anymore.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I totally hated this rewatch. There was actually at least one extended sequence that I did enjoy quite a lot: the Parent’s Day con at the end. It was what I remembered most about the movie before I watched it, and is where the movie stops being a series of episodic occurrences and actually comes together into something with a definitive plot. The parents variously believe that their children are attending weight loss, computer, drama or military camps, and the kids have to quick-change the camp into each version as the parents arrive and leave, leaving little room for error or the entire game is up. It’s a very Home Alone-esque series of Rube Goldberg gags to transform the camp each time, and I wish more of the movie had gone this way.
Alas, it did not, and despite enjoying the final 15 minutes or so I can’t really recommend the movie. I really liked the movie when I was younger, but now I find myself much more on the side of the parents than the kids. Maybe not to the point of sending my nieces to “Camp Microchip,” but I’ve seen medical billing now, and know just how much putting your eye out with a BB gun actually costs.
-One of the parents is played by Kate Mulgrew, something that I had absolutely no recollection of (and probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway, considering I didn’t watch any Star Trek at all until I was in college)
-This is supposedly Jessica Alba’s first screen role, but even knowing that going in I failed to notice her at all throughout the movie.