If you went to summer camp, it probably holds an untouchable place in your mental archive of formative early freedoms. If you didn’t go to summer camp, you probably still have an automatic nostalgic response to movies that try to capture that nexus of hormones and hijinks in the great outdoors.
Camp movies peaked in 1993, the year of Indian Summer and Addams Family Values. Some are distinctly terrible—you can go ahead and skip Daddy Day Camp—but most tap into the bug-bitten memories of being in the woods with your best friends, sure that you’re smarter than the grown-ups, gearing up for adventure. According to our very scientific, academically validated methods, these are the best of the best.
‘Wet Hot American Summer’
Wet Hot American Summer covers just about every element of summer-camp greatness: color wars, cool kids, love triangles, talent shows, a nearly tragic river trip, the smelly kid, and the lovelorn camp director all packed into the pressure cooker of the last day at Camp Firewood. It’s hard to decide what’s better, the hilariously off-kilter script or the all-start cast (Amy Pohler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd) shoehorned into some of their weirdest, funniest roles just before they got too famous to go to camp.
The love story at the heart of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is peak camp. Sam and Suzy, both 12-year-olds living on the fictional island of New Penzance, agree to run away together to a wild cove. Suzy sneaks away from home, and Sam sneaks away from Camp Ivanhoe, so they spend much of the movie pursued by scouts in khakis and grown-ups who just don’t understand. It’s full of nervous preteen tingles, timeless wistfulness, and Anderson’s color-soaked, emotionally layered style.
In what might be the most genius plot premise ever, a group of kids whose parents are planning to ship them off to a variety of camps they don’t want to attend (computer, theater, etc.) turn an abandoned hippie commune into the summer kid paradise of their dreams, complete with junk food and waterslides. They pull in their questionably moral theater teacher, played by Christopher Lloyd, to masquerade as a decoy camp director and con all their parents into forking over cash. Because they are teens with Disney-backed lessons to learn, their sham is eventually uncovered, but not before the glory of adult-free, summer utopia comes true for a while.
A tale as old as time: two identical girls meet at summer camp, realize they’re twins, and vow to get their odd-couple parents back together through a sneaky series of chance encounters (the truth, somehow, never seems to be particularly relevant in camp movies). Take your pick of the 1961 Hayley Mills technicolor classic, where some very effective split-screen use allows Mills to get in a food fight with herself, or the 1998 Lindsey Lohan update, which cemented peanut butter and Oreos as perfect camp food and is on par with her finest work, Mean Girls. The Olsen twins’ 1995 knockoff It Takes Two has its merits, too.
The film that launched Bill Murray to Bill Murraydom, Meatballs is a low-rent Canadian production that perfectly encapsulates all the tropes of summer camp. Murray plays the head of a group of counselors-in-training as they chase romance, execute practical jokes, find their sense of self, and beat the snot out of the dang cake eaters at the nearby rich-kid camp. It’s pretty much antics all the way through, and isn’t that how we all want to remember our camp days?
Heavyweights is the ultimate underdog tale and features Ben Stiller in arguably his best villain role as Tony Perkis, the fitness-obsessed heir to Camp Hope, who tries to torture campers into losing weight so he can shoot an infomercial. They buck his power, ensnaring him in a trap on a death-march hike, taking over camp, and eventually showing their parents that losing weight isn’t everything (this is a Disney movie, after all). But the moralizing is directed by Steve Brill of The Mighty Ducks fame and written by Judd Aptow, so it’s a charming, goofy pratfall of a movie and one that cemented the “Seymour Butts” prank call into the teen-film canon.