Film & TV

Top 10 Camp Movies to Watch Before Summer Begins

Enjoy nine of these classic films with the whole family—and one after the kids go to bed.

Summer camp is a memorable and often defining time for kids. Thanks to the multitude of different types of camps and the wide age range of campers, a ton of different stories come from the camp experience. These 10 films are wildly different, compelling takes on summer camp, from coming-of-age comedies to romance, to adventure. The more kid-friendly takes are on top, with a special adults-only classic saved for last.

Camp Nowhere (1994)
In this comedic kids’ movie, Morris “Mud” Himmel (Jonathan Jackson of Nashville) blackmails his destitute teacher Dennis (Christopher Lloyd) into creating a fake summer camp so his parents won’t send him to an actual one. Mud and his friends convince their parents to send them to the fictional camp (that has no actual counselors or rules), but eventually, the kids and Dennis find themselves having a fun camp experience. Camp Nowhere also stars Jessica Alba in a small role, her film debut.

Heavyweights (1995)
A film about a bunch of kids leading an uprising at a fat camp probably wouldn’t be produced today in this climate of political correctness, but a strong performance by Ben Stiller and a funny script by Judd Apatow make this a surprisingly engaging comedy. When Gerry Garner (Aaron Schwartz) is sent to a weight loss camp that has been taken over by psychotic fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), he and his friends scheme to stop Tony’s insane, militant ways. The kids end up actually losing weight and getting in shape after nice guy counselor Pat (Tom McGowan) teaches them to have fun while leading healthier lifestyles.

Girls Rock! (2007)
Billed as “the real Camp Rock,” Girls Rock is a documentary that follows several girls, ages 8–18, at the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. The camp not only teaches girls about music and being in a band, but also empowers them to be independent, strong young women. We follow Laura, a girl adopted from Korea who loves death metal; Amelia, who writes experimental rock music about her dog; and Misty, a teen who has overcome meth addiction, homelessness and gang activity. The film concludes with an amazing rock concert starring the girls.

SpaceCamp (1986)
This adventure-infused film tells the story of four teenagers who attend a space camp at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to learn about NASA and mimic astronaut training. Hijinks ensue and a robot named Jinx ends up launching the kids into space. The resourceful youngsters take what they learned during camp and use their newfound skills and knowledge to get their space shuttle back to Earth. SpaceCamp stars a young Joaquin Phoenix—credited as Leaf Phoneix—as one of the campers.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Yes, storied surrealist filmmaker Wes Anderson made a movie about summer camp, and it’s surprisingly accessible and sweet. It’s a coming-of-age tale about two 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), who find love in 1965. Sam, an orphan, runs away from his camp with pen pal Suzy, and the two find an isolated beach they name “Moonrise Kingdom.” The movie also stars Bill Murray (known for seminal summer camp comedy Meatballs, also on this list) and East Ender Bob Balaban. Moonrise Kingdom has a lovely theme about first love, the bittersweet feelings that come with it, and growing up.

Camp (2003)
This independent flick about a group of misfit kids at drama camp (inspired by the real-life Stagedoor Manor) has a cult following among musical theater aficionados. With a mixture of obscure folk and pop songs like Todd Rundgren’s “The Want of a Nail” and Victoria Williams “Century Plant,” as well as beloved showtunes from Stephen Sondheim, Lynn Ahrens and others, Camp is a quirky and funny film about talented kids with a penchant for melodrama. Camp is also notable for being the film debut of Anna Kendrick. Camp is a little racy for younger kids, but with an inclusive cast of LGBTQ characters, it has a nice message about acceptance and finding community.

Meatballs (1979)
The first film starring Bill Murray, this wacky comedy is definitely for teens and older. Meatballs is best known for being a star vehicle for Murray, who was on the rise after his Emmy-winning turn on Saturday Night Live. Murray plays Tripper Harrison, a cool camp counselor who takes shy kid Rudy (Chris Makepeace) under his wing and helps him build confidence and have fun. Along the way, Tripper falls for fellow counselor Roxanne (Kate Lynch). The film also features a competition subplot in which the camp pulls together and beats a rival camp in the annual Olympiad.

Indian Summer (1993)
Definitely one for parents, Indian Summer is best described as The Big Chill set at a summer camp. Lou (Alan Arkin), the aging director of Camp Tamakwa, invites eight former campers back to the camp to announce his retirement. The kids, who attended 20 years earlier, reunite and relationships are explored, secrets come to light and old conflicts reignite. Indian Summer features stars like Diane Lane, Elizabeth Perkins and the late Bill Paxton as the former campers. This nostalgic slice-of-life dramedy is sure to resonate with anyone who has memories of their youth they’d like to hold onto—even if memories aren’t exactly what we remember.

Addams Family Values (1994)
The sequel to The Addams Family (based on the cartoons by East Ender Charles Addams) follows the further adventures of the the titular macabre family, including kids Wednesday and Pugsley’s trip to sleepaway camp. Written by celebrated playwright Paul Rudnick, Addams Family Values has a dark sense of humor, with Wednesday’s violent tendencies playing a large part in the proceedings, especially when she burns the camp to the ground! But older kids (and parents) who can appreciate the sense of irony and satire should get a kick out of it. Addams Family Values stars Joan Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Okay, Wet Hot American Summer is the only film on this list that is absolutely not for children in any way, but this cult sensation is too fun to ignore. Starring an ensemble cast featuring Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black and other Hollywood talent, Wet Hot American Summer spoofs 1980s sex comedies. This hilarious romp takes place during the last full day of a fictional summer camp in 1981. Originally a flop, Netflix eventually turned Wet Hot American Summer into a franchise, with an eight-episode prequel series and a sequel series. Enjoy this raunchy comedy, but remember—it’s not for kids!

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