Camp is a place of awakenings, a place of self-discovery through challenges physical and emotional. It’s where individuals have a chance to explore or even redefine themselves. Many of these journeys have been memorialized in film through favorites Meatballs, The Parent Trap, Ernest Goes To Camp, SpaceCamp, Dirty Dancing, Adams Family Values, and many more. Each of them some variation on the very real experiences of the average cinema-goer. The newest addition to the “camp movie” sub-genre takes the struggles of identity and places them in territory usually reserved for social commentary: religious camp. Camp Manna, from co-writers and co-directors Eric Scott Johnson and Eric Machiela, lacks the crazy antics of lost kids and horny teens, but still finds its heart and hilarity in a tale of good-vs-evil, fellowship, and false prophets.
A tragedy forces 15-year-old Ian Fletcher (Luke Klein) to move in with his aunt and uncle. Soon after taking Fletcher in, his aunt and uncle decide that the best way for him to get used to his new life is to ship him off to Camp Manna for a week. From their perspective, the campers all attend his new school, so it’ll give him a chance to make friendships before the first day. From his perspective, he’d rather move back to Florida. It’s bad enough that Manna is a religious camp and his “non-believer” status makes him an automatic target, but matters get worse when the camp gears up for an Olympiad called “The God Games” wherein the campers compete for cabin supremacy. Settling into his cabin called the Passover Privates – led by awkward counselor Bradley Sommers (Evan Koons) – Ian discovers that while he’s an outsider, the rest of his bunkmates are, too. As the coveted God Games begin, Ian and the rest of the Passover Privates must band together against the other cabins or remain the shame of camp.
Camp Manna bills itself as satire, but if you come to it thinking that faith is going to be the butt of every joke, you’d be disappointingly wrong. Faith is less a source of humor and more of the backdrop through which the story flows. The narrative doesn’t explicitly mock faith, so much as views it in the same lens as other stories – good vs evil – just with a heavier religious bent. For example, the Passover Privates are led by Bradley, a well-intentioned counselor that wants the best for each camper, but he struggles with leadership. On the other side is Clayton (portrayed hilariously by American Vandal’s Jimmy Tatro), a charismatic counselor for the Righteous Regiment who’s only into saving souls for the glory. Neither are caricatures, yet their foibles set them apart. It’s these areas that the humor comes through. Plus, it’s a camp movie, so expect the usual regurgitory humor and physical injury fare.
The only way that Camp Manna exists as a satire is the way it lampoons ’80s camp movies. Whether intentionally done or not, between editing that places bandages on before injuries are incurred, that seems to reuse old footage, that has conversations happen much later chronologically speaking than you’d expect, Manna leans into how so many ‘80s films just seemed to forget about consistency and focused on the fun. Additionally, Manna just utterly delights in going whole hog with the religious references. More often than not, Camp Manna feels like it’s just taking the piss right out of all the films that the target audience grew up on. In one scene, the Passover Privates are late to the opening of the God Games and accidentally find themselves stuck in the eye of a fire-made ichthys. In another, a pie eating contest sees the contestants dressed as members of the last supper as they gorge themselves. If that doesn’t feel like something out of Meatballs, how about the make-up of the Passover Privates themselves: Ian, the non-believer; Gordo (the always excellent Joey Morgan of Flower and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), the fat kid; William (Rammel Chan), the Asian kid; Mo (Peter Puok), the immigrant; and Greg (Colton Sams), the effeminate one. Each of these characters fits the exact stereotype of all the films we devoured as kids, but with one huge difference – none of them were the butt of jokes, until the end of the film when the point was to highlight how much stronger they are together. Considering the whole film lacks any real malice, outside of the members Righteous Regiment, Camp Manna is a breath of fresh air to the sub-genre.
The biggest challenge Camp Manna faces is getting past the preconception that it makes fun of or in any way denigrates faith. Get past that and you’re in for a ridiculously fun time with a movie clearly made with love. Sure, the script is a bit whack-a-doodle and character choices don’t always jive, but nothing about this film – like all the ones which precede it – is based in any kind of reality except that which the characters create for themselves. In the land of Camp Manna, it means that all things are possible if you just have faith. So tie your shoes, smooth out your tee, and get ready to play some games.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.