Round the World: Summer Camp Movies for Grownups

Ah, summer camp. Images of wood cabins, elaborate pranks, cringe-y talent show performances, and teens with raging hormones have filled our brains, thanks to what’s become a subgenre of American & Summer Camp Movies..

But summer camp stories take on different depths depending upon the decade and the country where they’re set, and they can shed some light on evolving cultural norms.  We took a tour through the eras and around the world to see how camp movies have departed from, inspired, or embraced the American tropes.

Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964)

Russian director Elem Klimov is best known for his epic Come and See, a legendary anti-war film that did not shy away from depicting the brutality of the Nazi regime. Few people know that prior to making Come and See, Klimov made a series of satirical comedies, including Welcome, or No Trespassing.

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story: A group of children at a Young Pioneer camp (the Soviet Union’s version of Scouts) eventually rebel against the camp director’s tyrannical ways. 

The Hook:  Initially, film censors deemed the movie anti-Soviet. But the premiere of the Soviet Union at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, thought it was hilarious, so the film was released. While Welcome, or No Trespassing is clearly an allegory for the Soviet regime, the kids are pure joy and Klimov ends the story on a happy note. Interestingly, the film shares many of the quirks seen in Wes Anderson’s work.

            Where to stream it: Criterion Channel 

Seven Freckles (1978)

Like Camp, Seven Freckles has the added bonus of a play-within-a-film. But this is not your typical American camp movie.

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Teenagers Karoline and Robbie were close as kids, but eventually grew apart. They reunite at a summer camp, where the counselors notice their chemistry, and cast them as Romeo and Juliet for the camp’s play. 

The Intrigue:  Set in East Germany in 1978, rigid moral standards and regimented activities clash with the teens’ sexual awakening — and the counselor’s decision to stage the Shakespearean romance. Even more interesting is that the film was inspired by similar Soviet movies from the same era. But at its heart, Seven Freckles is also an endearing story about the innocence of first love. 

          Where to stream it: Kanopy 

Seoul Searching (2015)

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Set in 1986, a group of Korean teenagers from around the world are sent to a government-sponsored summer camp in Seoul to help them better connect them with their heritage. They arrive in neon and Madonna get-ups ready to party, listen to the Clash, fall in love, fight, and ultimately learn a few things about themselves.

The Intrigue:  Director Benson Lee was inspired by his own Korean camp experience as well as  John Hughes movies, so he set the film in the 80s. To capture the diversity of Koreans around the world, he cast a wide net, encouraging teens everywhere to submit audition videos through YouTube and Facebook. The result is a lighthearted summer comedy on the surface that reveals some deeper undercurrents, exploring identity and what it means to grow up bridging different cultural divides.

          Where to find it:  Netflix

La Llamada (Holy Camp!)  (2017)

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Maria and Susana are two rebellious teens in Spain who end up at a Catholic summer camp run by nuns. When Maria starts receiving visits from God and Susana falls in love, their party-girl lives are turned upside down. 

The Hook:  La Llamada is unlike any summer movie or camp story, and its version of God is unlike any other you’ll find depicted in a film. This God sings Whitney Houston songs and dresses like Liberace. Granted, if God greeted me in a sequin suit singing “I Will Always Love You,” I’d pay attention too, and throughout the film, characters – including nuns – are inspired to burst into song at any moment, sometimes inopportune moments.  Nominated for five Goya awards – Spain’s equivalent of Oscars – the musical comedy was adapted from a hit stage production and became a hit in its native country. 

         Where to stream it: VOD via Apple TV, Amazon Prime, or Google Play

The Best Way to Walk

(La Meilleur Facon de Marche)

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Set in 1960 at a summer camp in the French countryside, a tough guy gym teacher walks in on the sensitive theater teacher when he’s in drag, and begins to antagonize him. As the bullying escalates, the two end up in a showdown that thwarts expectations in this 1976 French film that was nominated for five César awards.

The Intrigue:  Ahead of its time for its psychological exploration of homophobia, the film addresses what were taboo subjects at the time with nuance and humor.  Scenes with full male nudity also represented a first, and the movie was embraced at prominent film festivals like Toronto and Karlovy.

            Where to find it:  Mubi  

Happy Campers (trailer NSFW) 

A raunchier, more surrealist take on the summer camp comedy, Happy Campers gets rid of the grownups at a sleepaway camp.   

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  After a camp director is struck by lightning, all the summer camp counselors – who are in their late teens – are left in charge. One catastrophe after another follows as the counselors scramble to keep the camp together as the kids go off the rails. 

The Hook:  More cult classic than classic, it was written and directed by the mastermind behind Heathers, Daniel Waters, and serves up an R-rated Meatballs fused with off-kilter and almost Shakespearean comedy. An added bonus is seeing well-known actors in some of their earliest roles, including Justin Long, Jamie King, and Emily Bergle. 

          Where to stream it:  VOD on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play

Heavyweights (1995)

One of my personal summer favorites, Heavyweights is a bit darker than your typical summer coming-of-age fare, as it was written by Judd Apatow.  But it manages to remain PG, so you can watch this one with the tweens on up.

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Gerry is a plump 11-year-old who thinks he’s going to a fun summer camp for other larger young gentlemen. To his horror, the camp has been sold and is now run by fitness guru and maniac Tony Perkins Jr. (Ben Stiller), who has transformed it into a “fat camp.” After weeks of forced exercise, a grueling diet, and a healthy dose of humiliation, the kids revolt.

The Hook:  In addition to the Apatow imprint, Ben Stiller turns in one of his most underappreciated unhinged performances. It’s offset by the kids’ endearing affection for one another, and the film’s ultimate hero — camp counselor Pat (Tom McGowan), who gets tired of being treated like he’s less than just because he’s bigger. Pat does everything in his power to support his campers, including standing up to Perkins. Heavyweights will remind you that weight should never define anyone.

           Where to stream it: Disney +

Camp (2003)


Summer Camp MoviesThis one is for the theater kids and everyone who wishes they’d had their turn on the stage (it’s not too late).  The cult classic also launched Anna Kendrick’s career.

The Story:  At Camp Ovation, budding Broadway hopefuls come to sing, dance, and perform in the mountains north of New York City. Back in the real world, the campers are considered weirdos, but here – well, they’re still weird, but they’re among like-minded company. The campers are flummoxed when a straight boy comes to camp, who challenges them in ways they didn’t expect.

The Hook:  Part Dirty Dancing, part Meatballs, but with some early oughts flare. The white counselors are challenged when they have to stage Dreamgirls, and Anna Kendrick’s character goes up against the mean girl. Even the Godfather of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, makes an appearance – in the film and on the soundtrack.

         Where to stream it: Tubi, PlutoTV

White Water Summer (1987)

A singing Kevin Bacon makes a group of teenage boys cross a rickety bridge, catch fish with their bare hands, and peer over the edge of a cliff as he holds their feet in this late 80s PG thriller drama.  

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Initially named Rites of Summer, White Water Summer is by far one of the strangest summer camp films ever made. The film follows Alan (a young Sean Astin, fresh off The Goonies), a quiet city slick kid whose parents decide he needs some toughening up. He’s sent on a six-week wilderness survival adventure with new age-y wilderness guide Vic (Kevin Bacon), whose methods are inspired by The Hunger Games. Since that isn’t weird enough, the film also features a slightly older Astin, speaking directly to the audience.   

The Hook:   Stunning shots of sweeping mountains and wilderness are captivating but it’s the bizarre factor and the unpredictability that make this one worth a watch – and you’ll probably be convinced afterward that there’s nothing wrong with glamping. 

         Where to stream it: Tubi, Apple TV, Google Play

Wet Hot American Summer

It felt wrong to make a list of summer camp movies and not include this classic, as it takes us right back to the best of the American summer movie cliches. A delightful spoof of raunchy 80s teen flicks, Wet Hot American Summer is now a cult classic that’s spawned two spin-offs: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Year Later.  Start with the original, even if you’ve seen it. 

Summer Camp MoviesThe Story:  Set in 1981, a group of camp counselors are facing their last (and longest) day at a New England summer camp, determined to score, pull off the talent show, survive a disaster, and keep the gags alive.  

The Hook:  Watch this one last, and it works as a laugh out loud send up of all the R-rated summer camp comedies you just watched. Both skewering and embracing all the cliches and over the top antics, it’s an intentional mess, and part of the fun is the cast (young and yet to be famous Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks) and the fact that no one playing a teenager is actually a teenager, which was embraced wholeheartedly by the writers.  

It’s not all predictable either, as there’s a talking can of mixed vegetables and a group of “indoor kids” tasked with saving the camp from NASA’s Skylab, which is headed straight for them – just to throw in two examples. 

       Where to stream it:  VOD on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play.  The two spin-offs are available on Netflix.

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