REVIEW: Camp Takota [2014]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: February 14th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: RockStream Studios / VHX
Director(s): Chris Riedell & Nick Riedell
Writer(s): Lydia Genner & Mamrie Hart / Michael Goldfine & Mamrie Hart (story)

“It’s like they’re being murdered by their own happiness”

If you decide to take a shot on Camp Takota you must remember that few if anyone involved has true feature film experience. Executive producers/stars Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, and Mamrie Hart may be recognizable faces and hot YouTube commodities bringing a built-in fan base with them, but that sphere’s fame and talent means little when it comes to narrative filmmaking whether those who already forked over the cash to help get it made care or not. Unfortunately, the final project inevitably falls prey to theirs and directors Chris and Nick Riedell‘s greenness. Whether it’s the over-use of slow fades to black, the stretching of quick and dirty jokes into overlong montages, or the decision to show Elise’s (Helbig) story in chronological order so as not to even get to camp until twenty minutes in, this thing drags.

The biggest reason, however, is what appears to be a want to create a “serious” movie. I don’t mean that Camp Takota tries to play dramatic—it just feels as though these wild, crazy, and awkward personalities have been held in check. For making a career out of being larger than life characters, the Holy Trinity of YouTube have for all intents and purposes reigned themselves in. While glimmers of improvisation poke through, things adhere strictly to the rom/com, twenty-something coming-of-age tropes screenwriters Mamrie Hart and Lydia Genner provide. The trio does an admirable job pushing past their inherent hamminess to show they’re capability as “actors”, but you can’t help feel a trepidation lingering over each scene and joke due to fear of alienating an audience who may not be familiar with their day jobs’ antics.

This is the wrong attitude to have. It not only disappoints fans with specific comedic expectations, but also handcuffs the girls from expressing their full potential. A lot of blame goes to those behind the camera, but some falls on them as performers trying something new too. Will they get better? You bet. After all, Mamrie—the film’s highlight—is the one of this trio who went to college explicitly for acting, so it’s unsurprising when her natural presence and ability to land jokes with body language and facial expressions cannot be matched by the rest. Two characters that prove to be the film’s “villains” (John Milhiser and Jason McNichols) try to infuse the over-the-top streak you expected towards the end, but by that point their desire to add fun only becomes obnoxious since everything before then played much straighter.

Shot during18 days in rural California, the film’s main conceit deals with Elise and her struggle to be an adult in Chicago. An assistant at a tween fantasy publishing firm and aspiring novelist herself, when things appear to be going good—serendipitous book deal, added responsibility, and a planned wedding with Parisian honeymoon alongside beau Jeff (Chester See)—is exactly when the bottom drops. She’s fired, catches her fiancé with another woman, and drunkenly calls the old camp counselor she ran into that morning to beg for a job so she may disconnect with the “real world”. Soon discovering her estranged best friends are also working the summer as chef (Hannah’s Allison) and second in command (Mamrie’s Maxine), she’s ready to receive support and transition into a life she wants rather than one of self-proclaimed fabrication.

Well, that’s what we’re to believe until the opportunity for a return inevitably forces her into choosing. At least she’s able to catch a glimpse of the high life having fun with her buddies, crushing on local farmer Eli (Chris Riedell), and being alternately sweet and sassy with the young girls in her ward—it just might not be enough for clarity. And while she tries to find herself, Camp Takota reveals its own state of flux. Declining admissions and mounting bills have placed camp leader Sally (Ellen Karsten) in the precarious position of letting her son Jared (Milhiser) take control and turn it into a hotspot digital wonderland of yuppie douchebaggery. Unwilling to let the dream of one day inheriting the retreat herself disappear, Maxine gears up to save the day.

Yes, it’s a clichéd double storyline of two women digging deep to earn what they want. Yes, it plays with stereotypes for laughs whether Hannah being a lesbian, young Penny Fefferman’s (Kate Goldman) shyness bred by a mother with a surplus of assertiveness, or too cool for school older camper Sarah’s (Logan Riley Hassel) ambivalence. Don’t discount the existence of charm somehow finding a way to overshadow a lot of its shortcomings, though. Handyman Chet (Cameron Britton) steals scenes with his stoic, teddy bear brute; Mamrie’s penchant for dressing like Lady Gaga or making a fool of herself by singing the camp rules is a delight; and Hannah’s infectious snark appears at perfect instances of needed comic relief despite being sadly pushed to the background for most of the film.

The weak link, however, proves to be its star. I think Grace is a hilarious comedian when on top of her game, but she simply doesn’t have the room to show it here. Her Elise can be coldly bratty one moment and cuddly warm the next with little provocation; her romantic inclination towards Eli comes so fast and without chemistry that you wonder if things would be better without him; and when she does show signs of life, it appears the Riedells forgot to yell cut. Again, these issues are direct results of inexperience and sometimes need to be made before realizing how to fix them. Camp Takota has moments of effective humor, zany asides, and a welcome abundance of heart—we just have to wade through bad pacing, tonal disparity, and rookie mistakes to find it.


photography:
courtesy of camptakota.com

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