Ian Fletcher, a ‘nonbeliever’, is sent to a Christian camp where he is forced to compete in The God Games.
One topic we continuously return to on the True Myth Media Podcast is the question of why Christians films usually don’t turn out as well as their secular counterparts (Episode 24B- Why Christian Films Stink). We’ve discussed this at length in multiple episodes of the podcast, and most of the time we can trace the films’ downfalls to a couple different reasons. a) Christian films are more didactic, meant to teach instead of tell a story, and b) they’re afraid to take risks or do something that might possibly offend someone, even slightly, and c) Christian films often adhere to a formulaic storyline that we’ve all seen before: sinner is lost without Christ, sinner finds Christ, sinner repents, and sinner becomes a saved Christian. That’s a nice story, but how realistic is it really? If you truly didn’t believe in God, would you spin around in an instant and repent your ways (ALA. “God’s Not Dead”)? Probably not. The journey we all take as Christians varies, because we’re all different people from different backgrounds on different journeys.
Ian Fletcher’s (Luke Klein) journey is one that feels far more genuine than those depicted in many of the Christian films I’ve seen. Why? Because it breaks with the conventionality that Christian films adhere to and it’s not afraid to poke fun at those conventions it’s breaking. This film is incredibly smart in that it knows how to ride the line between secular and Christian. However, because it rides that line so well, there are some moments that are a touch edgier than you might expect from a Christian film; there are some swear words and a few humorous anatomical references, but nothing that wouldn’t be allowed in a PG rated film. As far as content goes, this is nothing worse than “Heavy Weights” or “Daddy Day Care” (sorry if those are outdated reference points- I grew up in the 90s…), but the message far more wholesome without coming off as overly preachy.
“Not all stories end in altar calls.”
Ian Fletcher (Klein) is a ‘nonbeliever’ orphan living with his Aunt Sharon (Nina Kircher, “Whip It”) and Uncle John (Will Clinger, “Stranger than Fiction”), both of whom are overwhelmingly Christian. Ian’s Aunt and Uncle decide to ship him off to Camp Manna , where they hope he’ll make Christian friends. Ian meets his delightfully dorky camp councilor Bradley Sommers (Evan Koons, “America’s Most Haunted”) and also the rest of his cabin members, dubbed the ‘Privates’. Ian quickly learns that the Privates are the outcasts of Camp Manna. Disheartened, Ian believes his time at Camp Manna will be a total wash, but he’s then approached by the super cool camp councilor Clayton Vance (Jimmy Tatro, “22 Jump Street”), who promises to show Ian the best parts of Camp Manna (and possibly save his soul). As Ian’s navigates the unfamiliar territory of Christian Camp, head councilor Jack ‘Cujo’ Parrish (Gary Busey, “Under Siege”) announces “The God Games,” a series of camp games with a prize for the winning cabin. Will Ian survive camp and its harrowing God Games, or will the trials of Camp Manna only bring him more disappointment?
So, as I mentioned above, one of the things that I liked most about this film was its willingness to poke fun at stereotypes. This is a film that enjoys bringing to light the overblown way people sometimes perceive Christians, and as a result, almost all the characters except Ian feel like caricatures. To me, this choice of making the camp councilors overly sympathetic and caring felt very reminiscent of 80s and 90s Camp movies, and it works incredibly well. To me, it feels as if the writers and directors were showing an outsider’s perception of a Christian camp, and as a result the film feels super meta. It feels as if we Christians are taking a step back to laugh at ourselves, while at the same time providing a story that secular audiences would have no problem enjoying as well (seriously- I watched this with my nonreligious roommate and he was laughing just as often as me). I think the cast of this film speaks to the quality of the script- I mean, how many Christian films can you think of that star actors like Gary Busey? Clever writing and gags (like the picture of the cross mirroring the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima) really elevate this film above many other Christian films I’ve seen.
Evan Koons as Bradley Sommers was the standout actor for me; the way he plays Bradley with such incredibly sincerity brings about a ton of hilarious moments. Koons’s screen presence even outshines that of Gary Busey; almost every time he was onscreen I found myself smiling at the goofy antics in which he found himself. Busey was funny as well. He was perfectly cast as the slightly deranged Vietnam vet turned Camp owner. He has what I considered to be one of the funniest reactions in the whole film when he and Ian have a heart to heart. Klein was pretty phenomenal as Fletcher. The fact that this is his first IMDb credit really surprised me. His ability to maintain a sense of disenfranchisement with the whole camp, while simultaneously drawing laughs and sympathy was wonderful. He’s an actor that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in more films in the future, because he’s certainly got some acting chops. Jimmy Tatro as Clayton Vance was great He’s a personified embodiment of a stereotype, and he plays with those expectations in absolutely hysterical ways. His ichthys tattoo with a “souls saved” tally inside was one of the funnier running gags of the whole film for me. (“I’m pretty sure that guy just died.” “Yep, looks like it. Good thing his soul is… (points to tattoo) right there.”)
If you come from a more conservative Christian background, I’d urge you to watch this first before showing it to younger children to decide for yourself if the humor is a bit much at times. Again, I don’t think its anything worse than what you’d see in any other PG movie nowadays, but coming from a Christian film it might be a little surprising.
If I were to recommend one Christian film this year it would be this one; not only because I believe it can be enjoyed by Christian and secular audiences alike, but also because it breaks with conventionality, it tells a story that has lots of humor for both adults and children, and most importantly it doesn’t shove a corny message down your throat; it presents a situation and lets you the viewer make your own decisions about where Ian’s journey of faith will go from here. Take a trip to Camp Manna- I guarantee you won’t regret it.
We talk about this film more in our podcast episode spotlighting West Michigan Films, so if you’d like to hear more of my thoughts and Michael’s, please give that a listen.
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