One week into the worldwide lockdown in March of 2020, Netflix came to our rescue with Tiger King as a brief respite. Now, after a full year into the pandemic Netflix has delivered once more.
A Week Away is the kitschy, teenage, romantic musical about a Christian summer camp run by Todd Packer from The Office that I didn’t know I needed.
Now let me be clear – this isn’t a good movie. (Currently sporting a 5.7 rating on IMDb, 50% critic’s score on Rotten Tomatoes, and 32% on Metacritic). But it’s… not bad either. It’s actually pretty fun!
I was tempted to issue a *spoilers ahead* disclaimer, but anyone who has ever seen any romantic comedy since the movies became “talkies” can deduce where this one is going simply from the synopsis on Rotten Tomatoes:
“Troubled teen Will Hawkins (Kevin Quinn) has a run-in with the law that puts him at an important crossroad: go to juvenile detention or attend a Christian summer camp. At first a fish-out-of-water, Will opens his heart, discovers love with a camp regular Avery (Bailee Madison), and sense of belonging in the last place he expected to find it.”
Where this movie is good:
Ah yes – who can forget the age-old rehabilitation alternative to months in juvy: a single week at a Christian summer camp. (I should note that the highly criminalized white teenager will apparently suffer zero long term consequences from actual grand theft auto). Aside from the absurdity of this movie’s macguffin, the plot was pointing fully toward a fairly traditional and predictable story arc.
Bad Boy meets Good Girl and it’s love at first sight. But she doesn’t know he’s bad, so he tries to quickly hide that fact by pretending to be good, and hilarity ensues as we watch him weave a web of lies and then more lies to cover those lies. But what if as he gets to know her more she… and hear me out now… makes him want to change into the Good Guy he’s always been deep down inside all along? Yeah? But right when we’ve seen Bad Boy transform into Good Guy, Good Girl finds out about his past – that he’s been lying the whole time, and she storms away to determine if she likes bad-guy-gone-good more than she hates good-guy-did-a-bad-thing. The
compulsive liar Good Guy appeals, Good Girl accepts, roll credits.
However, A Week Away didn’t fall into that close of a formula. When Will shows up to summer camp, he is clearly the “new kid” who doesn’t happen to know all of the choreographed dance moves to “The Great Adventure” (Yes, the Steven Curtis Chapman song from 1992), but the rest of the campers welcome him with open arms and bring him into the fold, without him having to pretend like he’s been there before.
Further, the entire movie isn’t based on Will’s imposter syndrome, and the script bucks the trend of high schoolers always being bratty and catty to outsiders. Where plenty of other movies would take the path of lazy jokes and recycle the typical tropes that include bullying, uncool kids being uncool, and pratfalls, A Week Away spends that time on more camp-y (pun intended) elements to pull at the nostalgia heartstrings, whether it be remembering what it’s like to be a part of a week-long competition at camp, joining in on the fun of activities like dodgeball and tug of war, or simply enjoying some of the absolute bangers on the album. One of my favorite musical artists, Johnnyswim, even does an exclusive cover of the lead song Best Thing Ever and it’s really good.
There are a number of touching elements of acceptance and welcoming from the other campers to the new guy, even though he might upend the status quo that’s been established in previous years at camp. For a teenage movie that can often rely on conformity as a central message, it was refreshing to see those types of eye rolling moments removed (even if there are still plenty of cringeworthy moments).
I also want to note that the acting isn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated. Perhaps I set the bar too low for Chrisitan movies (but… can you blame me?). Despite a pretty ho-hum storyline, it really seems like all the actors are genuinely having a lot of fun in the movie. Sherri Shepherd is an absolute joy every time she’s on screen and both of our leads (and their best friend counterparts) all put great energy into their roles. While nobody is winning an Academy Award for their performance, they certainly surpassed the expectations I had assumed for them. Both Quinn and Madison could easily hold their own and succeed on a much bigger stage.
Where the movie is not so good:
Someone who hasn’t been to summer camp or hasn’t experienced some of the groupthink that can come from youth group shenanigans could easily see this movie as … cult like. We’re introduced to Camp Aweegaway (because they spend a-week-away… get it?) through a choreographed bus ride from town that culminates in a camp-wide synchronized number at the entrance. It doesn’t help that you have presumably hundreds of kids marching like toy soldiers to the lyrics “Let’s follow our leader into the glorious unknown.”
The movie progresses with a hodgepodge of camp traditions that are about as stereotypical as they come. New campers are placed in one of three tribes in a Braveheart-esque Sorting Hat-style tribunal. There’s dodgeball, tug-of-war, paintball (an activity Avery has apparently been preparing for her whole life), arts and crafts, the blob… The movie wraps with a talent show to which Will shows up late, saves the day with his rock anthem (albeit not playing the guitar he’s been carrying around the whole movie), and earns juuuuuuuuust enough points to bring his perennially last-place green team the overall victory. But hey, A Week Away never claimed to be original.
Most of the enjoyable parts of the movie come from it being a shove-down-your-throat nostalgia bomb, which, while fun for a lot of the movie, certainly feels forced in other parts. It sometimes feels like the plot is just a vehicle to carry the audience between the dance numbers of “Dive” and “Baby, Baby.” And while our lead actors are of the “I’m an early 20something playing a sophomore in high school” age, the background dancers that sporadically materialize out of nowhere appear to be older than what would even be an appropriate age for camp counselors.
The comedy is rare and often does take the lazy exit (e.g. the nerdy guy best friend likes nerdy girl best friend but is afraid to make a move despite the fact it’s obvious they like each other), but I wouldn’t consider this to be a movie that leads with humor. In fact, if anything, it can lead with heavy-handed cringe.
Three of these moments particularly seem to stand out. The first being when George (played by Jabril Cook), who up until this moment has been crippled with a fear of rejection in even looking his counterpart crush Presley (Kat Conner sterling) in the eyes, for some reason decides to sacrifice himself in slow motion as a diving shield to spare her from being eliminated in dodgeball, despite them being on completely different teams and George’s team not even being on the court at the time. The sacrifice fails miserably, as all dodgeballs miss George and proceed to nail Presley in the face. Not only did the scene feel…odd?… but it felt like a clearly forced way of getting the cast into the camp nurse’s office where we find out the nurse is played by Amy Grant.
The cheese factor is cranked up during paintball. Three teams, single-elimination. The teams are slowly dwindled down until the reigning champions of the blue team outnumber Avery and Will who, also on separate teams, make a
love pact truce. They roll out of their makeshift foxhole and open fire. Back-to-back, dual wielding, they mow down their opponents like assassins. The world is but a mist of paintball glaze and symbolic beams of sunlight. We watching them “kill” their peers in a moment of non-violent, glorious unity, before Avery’s strategy/flirting pans out as she shoots Will to claim the win for the red team.
The third, and possibly worst offender is the climactic scene around the campfire toward the end of the week. Avery stands up and monologues about the bible verse Jeremiah 29:11 (taken very much out of context) and then leads in the spontaneous singing of “Awesome God”. In slow clap-type fashion, the rest of the camp stands one-by-one and joins in with a 192-part harmony. Will looking longingly at Avery from the other side of the fire, makes a medley out of it by singing “God Only Knows” (originally performed by King & Country). The is not only overacted – Avery cries hard enough to douse the campfire if she wanted – but the cheese-factor has reached a pain point peak in this scene. Maybe the nostalgia finally took a turn for uncomfortable here, or maybe this is just me naively thinking I could have escaped a christian summer camp movie without the scathe of a campfire singalong.
Unlike other Christian movies out there where God is the literal deus ex machina, the movie doesn’t culminate in a miraculous faith conversation designed to bring everything together, despite there being a heavy and overt Christian foundation throughout the movie. While I partially found that to be refreshing (because it sometimes feels like the ‘God card’ is a lazy writing escape clause), it still felt a little too vague and like the writers couldn’t choose whether or not to bring the gospel into the movie or not. I like that the movie chose not to make it seem like a week away at camp can truly change everything in an instant (even if it can), but it still felt like some extra element of resolution was either missing or too rushed.
As an aside, I’d like to note that while Sherri Shepherd delivers on her high-profile billing it felt like David Koechner, who plays the camp director, was underutilized. Koechner is a comedy legend, and it felt like he could have been used a lot more than he was to bring additional humor. He fits his role as the camp director- and father to Avery, despite that being remarkably downplayed- decently, but it felt almost like a little bit of a bait and switch given his skillset. While I don’t want to typecast Koechner based on his pedigree, perhaps many of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.
Where this movie is really fun: Two words: Water Dancing. It’s hard not to want to dance yourself when the absolute bop that is Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Dive” kicks off with a jump on the blob and crescendos with synchronized water-dancing that would rival Stomp on Broadway.
Now I grew up a Christian, but I didn’t grow up in a “Toby Mac is a better, Christian-version of Limp Bizkit” type of household. So while I knew enough about the who’s who of Christian pop culture, I’ve certainly been to more Warped Tours than I have Alive Festivals. That said, even I am familiar with Steven Curtis Champan’s “Dive,” but I didn’t realize that 6 of the 10 musical numbers in the movie were from major Christian hits. I didn’t recognize either Amy Grant or Steven Curtis Chapman in their cameos. I was scolded by my friends later when I told them I had no idea that “The Great Adventure” (Steven Curtis Chapman, 1992) and “Baby Baby” (Amy Grant, 1991) weren’t original numbers penned for the movie. (But let’s be honest, those songs still slap).
For people who were regular summer camp participants in the mid-to-late 90s/early 2000s, the number of throwback songs and nostalgic moments will have you “Remember when!?” pointing at the screen all throughout the movie. With plenty of songs from childhood, wishing you could go back to a time of summer camp, and energetic dance numbers, the movie is a blast to watch.
However, I begged my roommate and sister to watch this, as they both love Netflix/Hallmark/ABC Family/Lifetime cheesy Christmas movies and musicals with fun dance numbers, and this seemed to have all those elements PLUS summer camp PLUS throwback Christian pop. So I hyped the movie up to them (who invited my girlfriend and cousin), and they… didn’t like it. Apparently, they looked at each other mid-movie and asked “Is… he okay?”
I guess there’s a clause that applies to “the love interest is between teenagers, not adults our age” that disqualifies the movie from their interest category.
My rating: On a scale from 1-10, I’d give this a solid “Great to have on in the background for the 75-minutes it takes you to make your 30-minute HelloFresh meal.”