Ian Fletcher, a 15-year-old boy from Florida, just wants to spend the summer feeling sorry for himself.
After his parents suddenly passed away, Ian was sent to live with his Jesus-loving aunt and uncle. But their never-ceasing joy rubs him in all the wrong ways. Sensing their nephew’s depression and cynicism, they pack Ian up and ship him off to Camp Manna for the summer. They hope it will turn his life around.
Camp Manna, we soon discover, occupies an odd subcultural corner of evangelical Christianity. The camp’s director, whose name is Kujo, is a bit off his rocker. He served in the Vietnam War and has shaped Camp Manna to reflect that military service, turning young boys into soldiers for God.
The different cabins have names such as “The Righteous Regiment” and “Passover Privates.” And the campers in each cabin compete in a Bible-based Olympiad called the “God Games.”
Under the best of circumstances, Camp Manna could be considered a slightly over-zealous, but fun place for teenage boys to develop their faith.
However, this isn’t the best of circumstances. For starters, Ian isn’t a Christian. In fact, he kind of hates them (because he blames them for his parents’ deaths).
And to make matters even worse, the camp counselors who should theoretically be leading him to Christ are more concerned about using Ian to win the God Games.
Bradley, one of the camp counselors, leads the Passover Privates cabin. For the past several years, that cabin has been known as a collection of outcasts and misfits. And Bradley himself is something of a camp joke since he’s never successfully led a camper to Christ. However, over the course of the week, Bradley and the other Passover Privates find a way to connect with Ian.
Bradley, who goes back and forth between truly wanting to help Ian and also wanting to use him to win the God Games for a scholarship, confesses his ill intentions to Ian. But this admission of truth, proves to Ian that Bradley is a genuine guy.
Furthermore, the Privates defend each other (including Ian) when other cabins mock them. And when the boys put Ian’s mental (and physical) well-being ahead of winning the God Games, it secures Ian’s belief that they aren’t such bad guys after all.
Bradley and the other Passover Privates demonstrate their faith through actions. They love on Ian, and it helps to turn his attitude around. Ultimately, we don’t know if Ian becomes a believer. However, he does become more sympathetic towards Christians.
Camp Manna was created by Christians. But the movie still pokes fairly gentle fun at Christianity in a satirical attempt to showcase some of American evangelicalism’s flaws and blind spots. Accordingly, we see several stereotypes of the subculture, some flattering and others not so much.
Ian’s aunt and uncle’s house is adorned with a plethora of spiritual decor. They like to sing songs such as “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine” and quote Scripture. And at one point, Ian’s aunt says that her pastor told her to spend more time with her Christian friends to cure her depression. For all the lampooning of these over-the-top stereotypes, though, it’s still clear their hearts are in the right place and that their faith is genuine.
Kujo is another zealous Christian with some theological convictions that might raise an eyebrow. For example, he makes it a point to talk about how he died in Vietnam (not just spiritually, but physically) and saw angels in the “spiritual realm” before he was brought back. He also tells Ian that he knows the boy had a near-death experience (which is true) because he can see rainbows on Ian’s shoulders. And at times, these professions make the older man seem pretty kooky.
But Kujo also has some solid lessons for Ian. He explains that “faith” involves “fantastic adventures in trusting Him.” Kujo also explains that the purpose of the God Games isn’t just about competition but to help the boys break free of their “fear,” or “false evidence appearing real.”
Unfortunately, not all of Kujo’s lessons are sound. When Bradley (whom he mentors) is unknowingly recorded while praying to God about his doubts, Kujo scolds him. He tells Bradley that we are supposed to keep our doubts about faith “private,” because it shames Jesus if we don’t. Besides being untrue, it’s also unfair, since Bradley thought he was alone when venting those thoughts to God.
On another note, Bradley’s prayer to God is honest and vulnerable. He believes that God exists and trusts Him, but he wishes God would speak to him directly. Bradley seeks guidance and hope. And he notes that even though he gives his best for the glory of the Lord, the kids still prefer Clayton, another counselor who is very hypocritical.
Indeed, Clayton boasts about his faith and the souls he’s “saved.” (He has a tattoo that keeps count of this number.) And the boys whom he’s allegedly led to Christ wear T-shirts imprinted with the words “Clayton Saved Me.” But it quickly becomes clear that Clayton and his campers are more interested in glorifying themselves than worshiping God.
Characters pray, quote Scripture, sing worship songs and tell Bible stories. There is a reference to the River Styx from Greek mythology. Someone tells a scary story about ghosts.
Several campers and counselors are seen shirtless, often flexing their muscles. Someone comments on the tightness of a boy’s shorts.
One boy has his pants pulled down in front of everyone as a prank, and we see a bit of his underwear and some skin (but nothing explicit). Kujo says an “androgynous voice” spoke to him in the spiritual realm. A man wears an “Abstinence Club” t-shirt. There are some jokes about men’s genitals.
In a reenactment of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, one boy is forced to kiss another on the cheek.
We learn that Ian’s parents were killed by alligators during his own baptism in a river. Ian also nearly drowned but was rescued. Throughout the rest of the film, whenever he’s around water, Ian has flashbacks to that day. (And he almost drowns a few more times because of his inability to swim.)
After a boy is shot into the air on a blob (an inflated recreational device that bounces a person into the air when someone jumps on the opposite end), he hits the water hard, and someone nonchalantly says he might’ve died.
Someone speculates that Kujo went on a killing spree after getting injured in the Vietnam war.
A boy is covered in blood after cutting himself while wood-carving. Several people are nearly hit with flaming arrows. Bradley hits his head and bleeds after someone purposely slams the brakes on a car.
Many boys “roughhouse,” but several times this turns into actual fighting. They hit each other with golf balls and paint balls.
One seeming exclamation of “Gah!” could be a misuse of God’s name. We hear mild expletive substitutes, including “crap,” “dang,” “doggone it,” “geez,” “gosh” and “heck.” And several boys insult each other with terms like “turd” and “short bus.” We also hear insults that range from name-calling to “Your Mama” type jokes.
We hear a joke about steroids.
Bradley and Clayton’s rivalry that extends to the boys in their respective cabins, too. Clayton and his guys often imply that Bradley and his campers are inferior (not to mention the rest of the camp). When Clayton’s boys get out of hand, he does nothing to stop them, stating that it’s all in good fun and that they should all “forgive” each other.
What’s worse is that both counselors try to use Ian to win the God Games. Given his small stature, he’s ideally suited to be the flyer for the final blob challenge. And although Bradley comes clean about this, Clayton tries to poach Ian for his own team all week so he can win.
Eventually, we learn that Clayton’s story is rather sad, and that it has contributed to his desperate behavior at times. Outside of Camp Manna, he doesn’t have any friends. He tells people that he lives with his mom because she has MS; but really, he lives with her because he doesn’t have a way of moving out on his own. And his goal to win the God Games, while certainly fueled by his desire to be admired, is also spurred by his hope of getting a college scholarship. (Which would in turn allow him to move out of his mom’s house and “hopefully make a friend or two.”)
Several boys make racist comments towards boys of Asian and African descent. They make fun of another boy’s weight. They mock Ian for his height and trip him, causing him to spill food all over himself.
Someone burps and projectile vomits, causing others to dry heave. We hear references to defecating.
Clayton (and a few other counselors) encourage their campers to win the God Games at all costs. This results in lying and cheating. One boy even fasts all week long to lose weight for the blob challenge and winds up passing out from hunger. People act hypocritically.
Camp Manna is, honestly, kind of a strange little film, in that it wants to spread the message of Christianity without ever seriously discussing Christ. In fact, that actually seems to be filmmakers Eric Scott Johnson and Eric Machiela’s goal:
“We made this movie because we know that we’re not the only ones out there who have traversed the path of Evangelical Christianity. And we’re convinced that we’re not alone in our awkward attempts to unpack this messy, hilarious, and (often) well-intended subculture. Camp Manna isn’t a “Christian film,” not in the traditional sense. In it, you will find no altar calls or sassy sermons. But you will find a reverence and love for the Christian upbringing that shaped us and for those other oddballs like us that can’t shake it.”
And that’s what you get here. Kujo and Bradley are able to give some genuine faith-lessons without being too heavy handed. They demonstrate their love of Christ through actions more than words.
But there are still some issues to address here (besides some rushed and inconclusive storytelling). Clayton is obviously hurting, but there’s never any real redemption for his own painful struggles. From start to finish, he’s painted as the story’s villain, and sadly, we never see the tension between those two parts of his character reconciled.
What’s more, we never actually learn if Ian becomes a believer. It’s hinted and implied, but other than exclaiming “Jesus!” as he skyrockets dangerously through the air, there’s nothing to suggest that the boy did anything besides become more sympathetic towards Christians as a whole. (Then again, not answering this question may very well be another way that Camp Manna resists being categorized as a “Christian film.”)
There are also scenes in which characters substitute mild interjections for harsher profanities. Quick-witted insults are hurled as readily as dodgeballs. What Clayton calls “roughhousing” (not to mention his desire to turn Ian into a human catapult) is definitely rougher than most parents would want their kids to experience. And the truth of how Ian lost his parents is pretty mortifying.
So where does that leave Christian audiences? On one hand, if you’re looking for a typical Christian movie, this isn’t it. On the other, if you’re looking for a movie without crude humor, foul language, grotesque violence or sexual inappropriateness, this one avoids those concerns. And it does so while lightly satirizing the stereotypical ’80s summer-camp experience many of us may have had while growing up.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.