Jesus Camp falls into the category of films that I wanted to like more than I did. In some ways, it's a dream of a documentary: an intriguing, inflammatory idea combined with apparently unrestricted access. Unfortunately, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who previously teamed up for the acclaimed Boys of Baraka) can't resist the temptation to turn the film into a polemic. For a movie ostensibly about an evangelical Christian summer camp, it's disappointing how much Jesus Camp focuses on the "evangelical Christian" part of the equation, leaving the film disappointingly light on "summer camp."
Jesus Camp takes its title from a camp in North Dakota where evangelical Christians send their kids, preparing them to assume leadership roles in the ongoing fight for our nation's soul. Instead of campfires, there are prayer meetings; instead of sports or make-up (or whatever normal kids are into these days), these kids talk about being saved and doing God's work. Most of the camp footage revolves around the nightly prayer meetings, which provide intense scenes of children speaking in tongues, crying, "confessing," and generally getting the emotional shit beat out of them by adult preachers. These scenes are compelling, but heavy-handed—far more interesting is the too-rare footage of campers talking, playing, and revealing their creepiness in subtler, more insidious ways.
Interspersed with the footage is commentary from Air America personality Mike Papantonio, who harps on the message that fundies are taking over the country and ruining our government. (Well, yeah—no shit.) The best and most illuminating parts of Jesus Camp are when these weird, brainwashed kids are just being kids—not when Ewing and Grady are trying to prove a point that anyone who's even remotely cognizant already gets.