Here’s one of these movies I come across by accident in the video store, I never heard of it before but I’m compelled to bring it home. See, it takes place at one of those camps where parents send their problem or perceived-as-a-problem teens to, and pay to have them tormented and worked to the bone and the idea is that just being treated like shit in a different way than at home will make up for whatever caused them to do drugs or listen to Slayer or whatever and turn them into productive members of society. I remember during the ’80s watching Sally Jessy Raphael promote these places on her show. I always wanted to send her to dig holes and do push ups while a dude spits at her and calls her a pig. See if it made her show better.
The protagonist, Sophie, is played by Mila Kunis. This came out in 2008, same year she was in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and MAX PAYNE, so right around when she was graduating from sitcom actor to movie star. She plays a bratty daughter of privilege who rebels against her stepfather (who’s either a politician or just a rich person who throws shindigs for political causes) and embarrasses him at a home fundraiser for three strikes laws. This gets her signed up for Camp Serenity, a camp on an island near Fiji that is not for Firefly fans. They attack her and drug her like she’d being kidnapped, don’t even tell her what the fuck is going on. Next thing she knows she’s with a bunch of other confused kidnappees, chained to a stone block on a beach having to spend the night choking on waves.
The mastermind of the camp, unlicensed doctor Arthur Haile, shows up in sunglasses, sunhat and cane like he thinks he’s the guy from JURASSIC PARK. In fact he’s played by Peter Stormare, who was in THE LOST WORLD, wasn’t he? As soon as I realized it was Stormare in charge I had even more disdain for the dumbass parents who thought this would be a good place to send their kids. It’s fuckin Peter Stormare, man! You met him and thought, “This seems like the guy who would know what to do”?
We learn the system along with Sophie. The new people wear black t-shirts. They have to work up to yellow and then white shirt before they can be free. The boys (or men – none of them look like they could possibly be minors) seem to spend the days mostly running, swimming in dangerous stormy seas and getting pushed around and yelled at by musclehead ex-army guys. The girls get to do gardening at least. All of them live in shacks and get abandoned in lightning storms and have to eat slop and can’t be friendly to each other.
Eventually they have to face this sort of therapy session where they have to stand up in front of everybody and admit what they did to get sent there. Of course they don’t want to say anything, so other kids are encouraged to come down from the bleachers and yell abuse at them and beat them up until they cry and say what they did. Or make up something.
This is where it turns into a genre movie: Ben (Gregory Edward Smith), Sophie’s boyfriend back at home, decides he needs to bust her out. He talks to Sophie’s mom, finds out where the camp is, researches it on the internet, fakes track marks on his arms and stages problems to get his parents to send him to Camp Serenity. (Man, it would’ve sucked if they sent him to a different camp. Or to rehab.) Sophie tries to not acknowledge him when he shows up, but they are able to communicate surprisingly well considering the circumstances. And it’s weird that the camp would be co-ed.
This is a DTV movie from Canada’s Christian Duguay (THE ART OF WAR, SCANNERS II-III), but the look and production value are theatrical level. It’s pretty slick. The one major DTV giveaway is a number of flashbacks that use cheesy Avid farty skips and white flashes, and that are pretty clumsy about revealing important backstory. It’s not a very subtle movie – one of the main abusers at the camp seems aware that he’s the bad guy – but it does have some pretty good grey area. Despite what I said about Stormare before he does play the character as if he really believes in his method. And he has a sister who works at the camp who questions what he’s doing, but also is a total asshole to the kids. So it’s not too black and white. I liked that.
Sophie could be a more sympathetic character. She’s pretty bratty and then you find out that she did something really shitty that we didn’t know about at the beginning. I don’t have a strong reason to root for her other than that nobody should be treated this way. But these types of camps are a really interesting setting and topic for a thriller, that’s what caused me to rent it and it’s what makes the movie more effective than the individual elements might suggest. The whole concept of the camp is so terrible that it’s easy to be outraged at the people in charge, be disappointed with the kids who go along with it, and root for these two to bust out. And watching what they go through is demoralizing. It seems hopeless. When they manage to get off the island the paranoia has set in, you worry about them as if they’re wanted by the cops, not just some psycho fake doctor.
There are a couple girls who were at the camp before Sophie who are further along in the t-shirt progression. I felt like I understood how they could be beaten into believing in the system. They have to go along with it to have any hope of leaving. They start to talk like it’s actually helping them, but also they can be really cruel to the other girls. There’s a little bit of Lord of the Flies in this story, the way so many of the kids turn on each other. And it turns pretty Island of Dr. Moreau too at the climax. Also it takes place on an island, which is similar to both of those. Also Gilligan’s Island is similar in that sense but otherwise I don’t see too many parallels there, I probly shouldn’t have brought that up but it’s too late to delete it.
By the way, the DVD says “UNRATED” really big on it, but don’t get excited, it’s not a sex movie or anything. It could easily get an R-rating if they submitted it.
This is not a bad movie, but it makes me think of two better ideas. The boot camp setting would work really well for a teen DIE HARD ripoff like a TOY SOLDIERS. Bank robbers or somebody are hiding out in the isolated woods, desert, mountain or island near the camp, shit happens, etc. It would have the DREAM WARRIORS type of appeal of the troubled young outcasts as the protagonists. They genuinely do have problems, that’s how they ended up here, but obviously they also have parents and adult figures in their lives who have no fuckin clue how to understand them. So you relate to them as they try to do something good. Also they can use what they know from the streets. (Personally I would avoid the ol’ “of course I know how to hotwire a car” scene, but I’m sure it would end up in there somehow.)
One thing about BOOT CAMP, it doesn’t really delve believably into what got the kids there. Most of them you don’t ever hear their stories. One of them you hear a really absurd story about how she rebelled against her Christian parents, but luckily it later turns out to be a made up story. When I hear about these types of places I always associate them with the sullen rocker kid who doesn’t even really have a problem but gets sent there ’cause his parents just don’t get his crazy music and the way he dresses and some idiot at church told them some bullshit about satanic cults or something. My version would have a kid in that situation.
But a boot camp would be an even better location for a slasher movie. Has this been done before? If it has I’ll have to see that. It could be a twist on FRIDAY THE 13TH. Instead of counselors you have abusive drill instructor types. The protagonists are these poor kids who are already being victimized even before they gotta deal with a maniac. And it’s already set up for them not to be able to escape the camp, so that makes it harder to get away than in your usual slasher scenario. You root for the killer to get the adults and not the kids. I strongly believe in the importance of the Final Girl tradition, so this would have to either be a co-ed facility like BOOT CAMP or an all female camp. And at the end she gets home and are her parents gonna be happy she’s still alive or are they gonna think she needs more rehabilitation? Will what she’s gone through change her in the way they wanted? Plenty of room for ironic endings.
You know these gotta be done. Hit me up on Paypal, Hollywood.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.