Perhaps more than anything, there is an abundance of charm flowing out from Camp Takota. It combines a handful of people who have made entire careers on the Internet by being individually enthralling, so the decision to put them in a single movie makes sense. And while this natural appeal is a great boon to the film, it also covers up a smattering of niggling quibbles that would have otherwise become legitimate problems in less charismatic hands.
It tells the story of Elise Miller, a publishing assistant who promptly gets fired when she accidentally posts pictures to Facebook of her boss making out with hotshot young adult fantasy author Walker Paige. When she goes home to seek solace in her soon-to-be husband, she finds that he is with another woman. After some vodka-fueled thinking, she calls up Sally, an old summer camp director she happened to bump into earlier that day, to take up an offer to be a counselor.
Working at the camp eight years after the last time they attended as campers, Elise’s old friends Maxine Reynolds and Allison Henry welcome her back and shock Elise back into a crafts and lake-filled life. And up until this point where these three are together, the film is fine, but there’s a definite, discrete shift in what it has to offer once they link up.
Maxine is played by Mamrie Hart and Allison by Hannah Hart, two other YouTubers in addition to Grace Helbig as Elise. If you were too busy taking out a second mortgage on the rock over your head, you should know that in real life, they are all actually quite good friends. And it is palpable in the movie when they finally come together at the camp.
Seeing them on screen feels as natural as if we actually were seeing old friends reunite. It’s not to take anything away from the rest of the film, but rather to highlight how well they work as a unit. Their laughs and their smiles and their care seem genuine, which is either a statement on their acting or their friendship. And not that knowing any of this is required to watch the film, but it does help; there are some meta jokes worth picking up on.
Regardless, it does make some of the smaller problems easier to gloss over. You can usually discern the products of more green storytellers and filmmakers by the number of montages they throw in, and Camp Takota has an unnerving amount, including a strange amalgam of scenes from the movie itself. While not a problem in and of themselves, montages are emblematic of another problem: transitions.
Namely, they’re rather stilted. There are cutaway scenes that end up more confusing than informative (particularly one where Elise is just sitting in the woods) and an inordinate amount of cross dissolves. Not to mention Elise’s hard swing from loving and caring to cold and callous, a switch that is kind of hard to swallow given how she is portrayed in every scene prior.
But even then, that is perhaps the biggest problem with the film, and it’s not even a big problem. There’s also a noticeable dichotomy where parts of the movie look like a mumblecore indie film and other parts look like a beautiful bucolic paintings come to life and the writing can feel like it too often comes from a singular voice, but Camp Takota pulls off everything with sufficient aplomb.
Just not anything in excess. The story is a rather traditional tale of finding strength in your roots, but it does manage to pose some interesting questions along the way. It doesn’t, however, answer any of them. For example, Allison has higher aspirations to become a trained chef instead of working in the kitchen of a summer camp. She even goes so far as to apply to a culinary institute and get accepted, but doesn’t go through with it.
Where does the line get drawn between loyalty and fealty? Allison sticks around because she might believe Maxine will become overwhelmed without her or she does truly fear how Maxine will react if she tells her or any number of other things, but we don’t know. It all just kind of resolves peacefully.
And through Elise and Jeff and Eli—her cheating ex and a dashing local farmer, respectively—the film examines the naive and experienced perspectives of better/worse and right/wrong in relationships. And with Maxine, the nuance of fleeing to and running from your desires and fears is put on display. There’s actually a lot of quietly subdued and heartfelt considerations in the film, but they unfortunately don’t get explored as much as you’d hope.
There is, however, a sweet, sentimental core to the movie that’s pretty hard to ignore and impossible to not love. Seeing how the immediate exposure between Eli and Elise forms something deep and essential is egregiously delectable. The film is steeped in the notion that the rose tint of the important things in life isn’t always from a lens covering our eyes. Sometimes they really are just that good.
Even the bad guy isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s hard to pin down a real antagonist to the entire story. Jeff, of course, is a cheater, but he is gone for much of the film. And Jared, heir to the camp by way of his mother Sally, is actually quite a funny little fellow despite his desires to turn Takota into a nonsensical digital media summer camp.
A good amount of Camp Takota‘s success in being a wholly amiable romp actually comes from its actors. Mamrie Hart is kind of a revelation as her emotional turns inspired genuine movement in the cold, lifeless lump in my chest doctors tell me is a heart. Hannah Hart is also a treat, flexing gravitas I was unaware she had in Allison’s pivoting point. And of course, their penchant for curating laughs is in full effect here.
I suppose that the real resolution to the film lies in the romance between Eli and Elise, which means it comes down to Helbig and Chris Riedell (half of the movie’s directors the Brothers Riedell). The compacted timeline of infatuation they truck through is endlessly smile-inducing, if completely predictable. Helbig and Riedell make the inherently awkward parts of creating “moments” between two people seem as effortless and beautiful as lying in a windswept field.
Like I said, Camp Takota is a film that oozes charm. Its main cast does so almost too easily, but the supporting cast does its work, too. And on occasion, they even show off some acting chops that take the overly sweet edge off the whole experience. It has to fight, however, against the visible struggles of first-time movie directors, feature film production studios, and screenplay writers.
They never devolve into full-on problems, but the rough edges are there, scratching at you as you watch the film. Thankfully, you are left in the fully capable, funny, interesting, and engaging hands of two Harts and a Helbig. They—and most of the folks in the film—make it hard to look at anything else but the movie’s victories. And they are worth seeing. But you won’t be able to ignore all of the fraying bits.
+ One of the most charming things you’ll see this month
+ Manages to introduce interesting and complex ideas into the story
+ Standout acting chops from the cast
– Failure to follow through on its intriguing reflections in a conventional tale
– A stilted movement between disparate parts of the plot
Final Score: 7 out of 10