Heavyweights show empowerment and the horrors of summer camp
Summer camp is a bizarre and glorious liminal space; something between the structure of the school and the perceived freedom of a lawless summer spent in your cul-de-sac. At camp, we make friends with whom we have never had stronger bonds, with whom we can share secrets that are not safe to share in the “real world”. And, four or a few weeks later, we leave in separate buses to go back to where we came from, promising to write. (We usually don’t.) Summer camp can be a beautiful thing; a timeless treasure.
But summer camp can also be the first place you hurt yourself when your parent or guardian wasn’t there to take care of you. Summer camp might have been the first place you had a nightmare and didn’t feel safe anywhere. Summer camp is as much about snakes and upturned canoes as it is about s’mores and orienteering.
As with all facets of being a kid, attending sleepover summer camp can be anything from liberating to horrifying, and so many summer camp movies focus on one or the other. For all the slasher mayhem of overnight camp and the Friday 13 series, there is also the romantic fantasy of Moonrise Kingdom and the messy shenanigans of hot and humid american summer. But it takes a weird and special movie to really capture the duality of the summer camp experience. Kids, get on the camp bus; we go back to 1995.
“Someone once said, ‘War is hell.’ They never went to the big camp.
Steven Brill and Judd Apatowit is Heavyweight works like the perfect summer camp movie by capturing both the joys and horrors inherent in the experience, while ultimately allowing our campers to reclaim their own power and have the best summer of their lives.
We meet our 11-year-old protagonist, Gerry Garner (Aaron Schwartz) the last day of school. Gerry’s introduction is the introduction of a fairly normal 11-year-old. He walks through the chaotic hallways with a friend before missing his bus. He later tells his parents that his plans for the summer are to “hang out”. As Gerry returns home, he encounters obstacles in the form of a wayward baseball and a kid’s lemonade stand.
You know, standard kid stuff.
What we immediately see is that Gerry’s life isn’t bad because he’s fat. The problems in his life all come from people who are too concerned about his body, from bullies who play baseball to Gerry’s father (Jeffrey Drum). Gerry returns home to an ambush in the form of his concerned parents and a brilliant promotional video for Camp Hope. At first, Gerry is excited about the promise of racing go-karts and jumping in the lake on the Blob. But then Camp Hope’s true intentions are revealed.
Gerry’s parents send him to big camp. “We have to nip this thing in the bud,” Gerry’s dad tells him, and any viewer who’s ever had someone (especially a parent) offer unsolicited advice about his body grimacing with Gerry. But what other choice do you have when you are 11? We leave for Camp Hope.
Along the way, things start to look more, well, hopeful for Gerry. He meets seasoned camper Roy (a baby Kenan Thompsonlovely even in 1995), then the even more seasoned adviser Pat (Tom McGowan), which promises Gerry the best summer of his life. Children pile into the camp bus and the atmosphere is excited and noisy. Maybe even fat camp can be fun and freeing.
As soon as the bus passes through Camp Hope’s front door, however, the film begins to hit unmistakable horror beats. Gerry looks out the window and sees a camper shaking his head menacingly. “Turn around,” he seems to be saying. But we ignore it and keep heading for the Chipmunk Bunk: the home of all the contraband candy (and deli meats) a kid could want.
During the first evening assembly, everyone hears the bad news. Camp Hope has a new owner in the form of fitness entrepreneur Tony Perkis Jr. (Ben Stiller). While he’s undeniably funny and has some great lines (“Attention, campers. Lunch was canceled for lack of commotion. Make do with it.”), Tony is absolutely creepy. Ben Stiller is electric in this role; his face shifts nimbly from deceptively positive, TV-ready friendliness to oddly menacing menace capable of violence. Tony’s sinister plan for camp is to shoot a hit weight loss infomercial, and he doesn’t care what dangerous tactics he has to use to get it. In a single night, Camp Hope suddenly sucks.
One of Tony’s most monstrous actions is inviting girls from a nearby camp to come dance. Humiliation is no motivation, but Tony will stop at nothing. Of course, no one wants to dance, because mixed dancing is super scary for most people. A monster in a hockey mask wielding a machete is scary but unlikely to happen. Getting hurt at a childhood ball? Much more relevant.
But Tony must make it clear to the children of Camp Hope that no one will dance with them because they’re fat, then they’ll lose weight and make a great story for his awful infomercial. When the Camp Hope counselors sacrifice their dignity to get the dance started, everyone joins in and starts having fun, which is, of course, when Tony shuts it all down.
Along with the psychological scars left by such humiliation, Tony also presents a very real physical threat to children. When none of the campers have lost Tony’s desired amount of weight, he punishes them with a 20-mile hike through the woods. Camp Nurse Julie (Lea Lail), the voice of health in the film, immediately points out that Tony’s fitness tactics are dangerous to the point of putting his life in danger. The non-Perkis camp staff work out how to get rid of Tony when the campers take matters into their own hands, overpowering Tony and locking him in a barn. With the villain defeated (for now), campers and counselors can begin to re-examine what the best summer of their lives might look like.
At one point, overlooking the lake, Pat confesses to Gerry that he is “tired of being the fat one”. What Pat is really saying is, “I’m sick of being treated this way. Pat Finley is a hero, and this movie knows it. Because Pat was there. Pat was the kid bullied for his body and sent to fat camp as punishment, and now he’s here to make sure the kids he cares for have as much fun as possible. Pat doesn’t need to lose weight. Pat must realize his own worth outside the confines of Camp Hope, and then inspire his campers to do the same.
After Tony’s imprisonment, the campers (and Councilor Tim) engage in some kind of junk food, prompting Pat to give an inspirational speech the next morning about personal responsibility. Our next montage shows the children having fun on a walk with the monitors and learning to cook tomatoes with nurse Julie. Campers are no longer punished, but instead have the opportunity to learn the nutrition movement in a fun way.
Are there things about this 1995 comedy that just don’t hold up? Oh, absolutely! Heavyweight wouldn’t be done in the same way today, and that’s good. We have better, gentler, and more informed ways to talk about body fat. Vicious fatphobia was particularly prevalent in the 1990s, so to have a movie where the big characters not only fight the heinous manifestation of toxic exercise and diet culture, but also to win is truly something remarkable.
When the parents come to visit the camp, Gerry’s father says to him, “You look like you”, to which Gerry replies, “Well, I feel good. The fact is not that any of the children lost or gained weight. The thing is, despite the horrors inflicted by Tony Perkis, they still had a great summer, which every kid deserves. Having fun shouldn’t be a reward for losing weight; it is a right that every child should have. When our Camp Hope heroes finally defeated the Camp MVP bullies in a go-kart race – the pinnacle of ’90s summer success – they scored a win for underdogs everywhere.
We want to go back to a Camp Hope with Tony Perkis defeated, because it’s a fun place where all of our friends are. But we also wouldn’t mind having another Tony Perkis to defeat.
Even killing monsters can be fun when you do it with your friends.
Heavyweights is available to stream on Disney+.