If you were a young Christian in the 1980s, you were probably forced to go to church camp; I know I was. There was something about getting away from the world, commune with God in nature, and save some souls. The church’s odd yet unique culture is the central focus of co-writers/co-directors Eric Scott Johnson and Eric Machiela’s feature film, Camp Manna.
Our story follows a 15-year-old kid named Ian Fletcher (Luke Klein), orphaned after a tragic baptism experience. He now lives with his aunt and uncle in Florida. Shortly after his arrival, Ian is sent to Camp Manna in hopes that he’ll find the salvation that has so far eluded him.
The camp is run by a PTSD-stricken veteran, Cujo (Gary Busey). After an anxiety-driven breakdown, God granted Cujo the idea of the God Games, a Biblically-themed Olympic competition pitting cabin against cabin to see who will become true “men of faith.” The winning counselor, at the end of the week, earns a college scholarship. Ian finds himself with counselor Bradley Sommers (Evan Koons), representing the Passover Privates.
Bradley is sort of a dweeb and, at times, angry with God for giving him the weakest kids in camp. Meanwhile, over at the Righteous Regiment cabin is the “cool” counselor Clayton Vance (Jimmy Tatro). He seizes the opportunity to take the non-believer Ian under his wing in hopes that Clayton can add another soul to his salvation tattoo.
“…the God Games, a Biblically-themed Olympic competition…”
Camp Manna is not a “faith” film, a Christian version of Meatballs, but without Bill Murray. There are no altar calls, and the Christian camp songs are incredibly annoying. If anything, Johnson and Machiela take great joy in satirizing the Evangelical Christian culture of the 80s. Its humor comes from the idea of what would happen if you took God out of a Christian camp.
First, there’s the omnipresent Christianese or Godly words and phrases to remind everyone that you’re a better Christian than the guy next to you. Second, there’s the blatant passive-aggressiveness when non-believer Ian becomes the salvation project for half the camp. Lastly, there’s the constant feeling of working out one’s salvation as Bradley cares only about not losing the God Games for another year or Clayton’s need to always racking up his salvation count. Essentially, this is your typical high school camp where everyone throws Christian lingo and cliches with zero self-awareness.
Though a lot of the jokes are a little too inside baseball, I laughed out loud at many slap-stick moments from The God Games themselves. There’s a lot of cartoon violence throughout Camp Manna, particularly when Bradley gets nailed in the ear by a well-connected golfball. The dangerous shenanigans involving a giant inflatable blob in the middle of the lake are also quite amusing.
If you’ve followed Gary Busey’s career these last few years, you know that it’s not been easy for him after he was in a motorcycle accident. Going against type, Cujo is not the evil camp dictator nor angelic wise-man. Instead, Busey plays him as a sweet gentleman with crazy ideas for the God Games that would ultimately become an insurance nightmare. However, Busey does have a touching moment with Kelin’s Ian, where he rattles off some of his infamous acronyms as inspiration to the young lad.
Camp Manna is a light comedy that doesn’t hit you over the head like a fifty-pound King James Bible. Nor is it an indictment on Christianity and its followers. Instead, it’s good clean fun, though maybe a little too tame for those looking for big laughs.
"…doesn't hit you over the head like a fifty-pound King James Bible."