Tommy Ackerman has nothing against church. Hey, the guy goes to church for, like, whole minutes at a time.
He appreciates family, too. Why, his family’s the reason why that he spends most of his time working. It’s not like Hannah’s going to pay for college herself, right? Certainly not when she spends all her time buried in her phone screen. And 10-year-old Henry? Well, he needs support, too. Monetary support.
Tommy doesn’t even have anything against camp, either. At least not in theory.
But church-based family camp?
“Church camp is just so … Jesus-y,” he tells wife, Grace.
But Grace is unswayed. She believes that family camp just might be the ticket to patching the holes in this leaky clan of hers—the key to keeping this nuclear unit from going nuclear. It’s great that Tommy’s such a good provider, she tells him. But his kids need more. She needs more. “We barely get to see you,” Grace tells Tommy. “And when we do, you’re not present.”
So Tommy reluctantly acquiesces, and the Ackermans head to camp—high expectations, bad attitudes and several smartphones in tow. And hey, maybe Grace is right. Maybe it will give them an opportunity to reconnect as a family.
But once they arrive, the Ackermans discover they’re not the only family with which they’ll be connecting.
Due to a bit of a mix-up, Tommy’s family will be sharing a yurt with the Sanders clan, led by the back-cracking, harmonica-loving, prayer-pontificating Eddie Sanders. Eddie and his family quickly consecrate the yurt as “holy ground,” and Eddie insists on separating into into a boys’ half and girls’ half. The whole family plans to stick to the WWJE diet at camp, which is distinctly lacking in barbecue.
And Eddie takes great pride in the fact that the Sanders (Sanderses?) have won the camp’s competition trophy for the last two years. Why not make it three? Because if there’s one thing that Eddie loves almost as much as Jesus, it’s trophies.
Family camp will just last a week, which perhaps is a bit of solace for Tommy Ackerman. But while 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years,” a day with Eddie Sanders just feels that long.
Buckle up, Tommy. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Tommy and Eddie don’t share much in common. What do they share? A love of their respective families—even if they sometimes struggle to show it as they should.
Before camp, Tommy tended to lose himself in work, and Grace was right when she told him that he needed to reconnect with his growing children. He does so, ultimately—especially with his son, Henry. The two have struggled as of late: Henry would much rather create nature documentaries (which he narrates in an Australian accent) than play sports. But the boy still desperately wants to make his pops proud. Turns out, Tommy couldn’t be prouder of Henry, even if he doesn’t understand the whole nature doc thing: “You’re perfect just the way you are,” he says.
But we see that Grace and daughter Hannah need to shore up their own relationship, too. With Hannah leaving home soon, Grace hoped that she and Hannah could use camp to find some good mother-daughter time. That doesn’t happen, really, but Hannah realizes toward the end of camp just how much she and Grace mean to each other—and how much they always will. “Mom, I’m going to need you for everything,” she says.
If Tommy has been guilty of disengaging a little too much from his family before camp, Eddie might have erred the other way. He and his wife, Victoria, are struggling—in large part because of Eddie’s domineering nature. Eddie worries about his fraternal twins, too. “I love them so much,” he confesses. “And yet I’m still afraid I’m going to mess them up somehow.” Camp proves to be a bit of an ointment for him and Victoria, though it doesn’t come without cost.
And without giving too much away, the Ackermans and Sanderses find and form their own hard-earned bonds. Confession and forgiveness form a central theme here. And, as we’ll see, they might edge a little closer to God—or at least God-honoring principles—as well.
Family Camp is targeted at a faith-based audience. The movie understands that it doesn’t need a literal come-to-Jesus moment for its characters, because most of its viewers have already had that moment. Rather, this story is a little bit more about the place where most of us are at: What does it mean to live as a Christian should live? How does our faith impact our family? Our friendships? Ourselves?
We do hear some thoughtful theological ruminations at times. Someone says that, if God’s in control of the chaos He’s seen, “I’m not sure if I’m that interested in faith.” When another character regurgitates the old cliché that “God doesn’t make junk,” it comes with added poignancy.
But many of the movie’s most overtly spiritual elements are used more to foster inside jokes—Christians making jokes at the “expense” of Christians that (most) Christians will get and appreciate.
For instance: As Tommy and his family drive to camp, his vehicle is cut off by another SUV. The vanity plate on the offending vehicle reads “BLESSED.”
For instance: Eddie’s elaborate blessing ceremony of the camp yurt, which includes a harmonica-accompanied hymn, references to the land of Goshem and a “big spiritual hug.” When Eddie showily prays over his entire family later that evening—dabbing a bit of oil on each family member’s head with a dropper—Tommy feels as though he must follow suit—even though he’s clearly never prayed over his family before. “Pretty sure God knows our names, Dad,” Hannah sighs after Tommy introduces them to Him.
For instance: When Eddie saves Tommy from choking on a piece of meat, the meal’s attendees applaud. “Just doing the Lord’s work,” Eddie says. He tries to deflect praise to the Almighty, then amends his statement: “OK, [it was] a little bit me, but mostly Him,” he says.
We could go on. We hear references to Dave Ramsey and vegan Gospel choirs. We hear a Christian form of “Baby Shark”. The Sanders family brings a couple of gerbils to camp, one of which is apparently named “Little Billy Graham.” Someone quips that “when God closes a door, he opens a Chick-fil-A.” We hear many jokes predicated on an insider’s knowledge of evangelical Christianity, and I don’t want to spoil all of them.
Someone is called “Lucifer.” The camp’s opening ceremony includes torches representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We hear a mention of evolution, to which the mentioner is told, “We don’t say the ‘E’ word here.” We hear a reference to speaking in tongues. A scene takes place in a church.
Hannah hits it off with a boy in camp, and she spends most of her time with him (much to Grace’s chagrin). Nothing physical takes place: Their one potential kiss is interrupted by circumstance. But this budding romance is clearly a point of concern for Grace. (She says the boy’s intentions are probably “God only knows what.”)
Eddie flirts with his wife, and Victoria reminds him that the children are watching. “How do you think they got there?” he teases. He compliments Tommy’s wife as well. Being a chiropractor, he notices Grace’s “lovely neck.” (He reassures Tommy that he’s just speaking professionally.)
Henry films most everything, and he records sister Hannah on the drive up to camp. “Stop filming your sister,” Tommy tells him. “It’s creepy.”
After Eddie’s stung by bees, he’s in need of an emergency shot, which needs (he tells prospective shot-giver Tommy) to be injected in Eddie’s thigh or buttock. Tommy rejects the buttock, and he reluctantly (and comically) massages Eddie’s thigh to prepare it for the injection.
The camp’s director and cook seem to get a bit chummy.
Eddie’s encounter with the bees leads to a seriously swollen face. The first anti-venom shot that Tommy tries to inject instead goes (painfully) into Eddie’s hand. The next one hits its intended mark, but it seems equally painful.
A game of full-contact soccer (for the camp competition) involves family members donning inflatable shells. Several participants are knocked over and rolled about after being aggressively “tackled,” and one player flees from contact.
Someone gets pushed into a lake. Someone else falls in. Two people wrestle in another body of water, and a mustache is yanked. Tommy hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious. A beaver is nearly run over. Eddie, being a chiropractor, cracks a number of spines and joints. One recipient falls over afterward. An ATV blows up from a fiery arrow. A flaming marshmallow finds its way onto someone’s head.
[Spoiler Warning] Eddie and Tommy are captured by zealous, um, hunters. The kidnappees are overcome by tranquilizer darts, then tied to a tree and left possibly to die. When Tommy and Eddie encounter them again, the hunters are beaten and overcome—so much that Tommy worries that one might be dead.
None, though Eddie does call Tommy “Bucko” frequently.
Eddie and Tommy consider stealing an ATV. A child runs off into the woods by himself. (He has the best of intentions, but he worries his mother nearly to death.) Henry gets car sick (off camera). Someone lies, but that lie comes with consequences.
For some, the words are mutually exclusive. Christians don’t laugh, some in the secular world believe. A few Christians, honestly, seem to believe it, too.
But it goes just beyond stereotype. Christian comedy—and by that I’m not talking just clean comedy, but comedy predicated on Christianity—is hard to master. Talk Christianity, and you’re talking about a truth that brings meaning to everything we do. You’re talking about a faith that we should hold as our most precious possession. So when you’re mining that precious thing for a few yucks, the perils are great. Secular audiences might not get it. Christian audiences might be offended.
Tommy Woodard and Eddie James, known collectively as the Skit Guys, have been living on that line for a while now. Performing together since high school, the two have carved a faith-based niche for themselves, writing and performing skits for churches, conferences and other Christian gatherings. Family Camp is their first feature-length film.
“You’re laughing as something you’re watching, you’re probably going to be more apt to listen to whatever they have to say,” James says in a promotional video for Family Camp. “And then you just got to have something good to say. And we believe the word of God is the best thing to talk about.”
Yeah, Family Camp is funny. It’s slick, too, in a good way. This feels like a solid Hollywood laugher with a bunch of pretty talented people in front and behind the camera. And if the characters sometimes feel a bit inconsistent or the film tries a little too hard to draw a laugh, it doesn’t take away from the real pleasure Family Camp offers. The smiles and laughs this film earns are genuine.
Naturally, being a Christian film, it doesn’t have nearly the content issues we’d be discussing if this was a secular comedy—even a relatively family friendly one. It does engage in some slapstick humor, and a few jokes can stray just a teensy bit into the bathroom or bedroom. But you’re not going to see a secular movie this clean this side of 1957.
And, of course, the messages here—of forgiveness, of repentance, of what it means to be a family—are all spot on.
No, Family Camp probably isn’t for everybody. Sometimes, laughing at ourselves can be a hard thing to do. But Family Camp shows that Christian comedy isn’t just possible, it can be quite good, too.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.