Summer camp is a bizarre and glorious liminal space; something in between the structure of the school and the perceived freedom of a summer spent lawless on your cul-de-sac. At camp, we make friends with whom we’ve never had stronger bonds, with whom we can share secrets that do not feel safe to share in the “real world.” And, four or some weeks later, we ride away on separate buses back to where we came from, promising to write. (We usually do not.) Summer camp can be something beautiful; a treasure out of time.
But summer camp might also be the first place you got hurt when your parent or guardian was not there to take care of you. Summer camp might have been the first place you had a nightmare, and nowhere felt safe to turn. Summer camp is snakes and tipped-over canoes as much as it is s’mores and orienteering.
As with any facet of being a kid, attending a sleep-away summer camp can be anything from liberating to horrifying, and so many summer camp films focus on one or the other. For all the slasher mayhem of Sleepaway Camp and the Friday the 13th series, there’s also the romantic whimsy of Moonrise Kingdom and the unhinged shenanigans of Wet Hot American Summer. But it takes a weird and special movie to truly capture the duality of the summer camp experience. Kids, get in the camp bus; we’re driving back to 1995.
“Someone once said, ‘War is hell.’ They’ve never been to fat camp. “
Steven Brill and Judd Apatow‘s Heavyweights works as a perfect summer camp movie by capturing both the joys and horrors inherent to the experience, while ultimately allowing our campers to reclaim their own power and have the best damn summer of their lives.
We meet our protagonist 11-year-old Gerry Garner (Aaron Schwartz) on the last day of school. The introduction of Gerry is the introduction of a pretty normal 11-year-old kid. He walks through the chaotic hallways with a friend before missing his bus. He later tells his parents his plans for the summer are to “hang out.” As Gerry walks home, he encounters obstacles in the form of a wayward baseball and a judgmental child’s lemonade stand.
You know, standard kid stuff.
What we see immediately is that Gerry’s life isn’t bad because he’s fat. The problems in his life all come at the hands of people overly concerned about his body, from the baseball-playing bullies to Gerry’s father (Jeffrey Tambor). Gerry returns home to an ambush in the form of his worried parents and a glossy promotional video for Camp Hope. At first, Gerry is excited about the promise of racing go-karts and jumping into the lake on the Blob. But then Camp Hope’s real intentions are revealed.
Gerry’s parents are sending him to fat camp. “We’ve gotta nip this thing in the bud,” Gerry’s dad says to him, and any viewer who has ever had someone (especially a parent) offer unsolicited advice about their body winces along with Gerry. But what other choice do you have when you’re 11? Off to Camp Hope we go.
Along the way, things start looking more, well, hopeful for Gerry. He meets seasoned camper Roy (a baby Kenan Thompsondelightful even in 1995), and then even more seasoned counselor Pat (Tom McGowan), who promises Gerry the best damn summer of his life. The kids pile on to the camp bus, and the mood is excited and raucous. Maybe even fat camp can be fun and freeing.
As soon as the bus drives through the gateway to Camp Hope, however, the movie starts hitting undeniable horror beats. Gerry looks out the window to see a camper ominously shaking his head. “Turn back,” he seems to be saying. But we shrug it off and keep making our way to the Chipmunk Bunk: home to all the contraband sweets (and deli meats) a kid could want.
At the first evening assembly, everyone gets 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 has been canceled due to lack of hustle. Deal with it.”), Tony is absolutely terrifying. Ben Stiller is electric in this role; his face nimbly transitioning from faux – positive, TV-ready friendliness to eerily menacing and capable of violence. Tony’s sinister plan for the camp is to shoot a best-selling weight loss infomercial, and he does not care what dangerous tactics he has to utilize to get it. Within a single evening, Camp Hope suddenly sucks.
One of the more monstrous of Tony’s actions is inviting the girls of a neighboring camp to come over for a dance. Humiliation is not motivation, but Tony will stop at nothing. Of course, no one wants to dance, because co-ed dancing is super scary for most people. A monster in a hockey mask wielding a machete is scary but pretty unlikely to happen. Getting your feelings hurt at a childhood dance? Way more relatable.
But Tony has to get the Camp Hope kids to internalize that no one will dance with them because they’re fat, and 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 going, everyone joins in and starts having fun, which is, of course, when Tony shuts the whole thing down.
In addition to the psychological scars left behind by such humiliation, Tony also presents a very real physical threat to the kids. When none of the campers have lost Tony’s desired amount of weight, he punishes them with a 20-mile hike in the woods. Camp nurse Julie (Leah Lail), the voice of healthcare in the film, immediately points out that Tony’s fitness tactics are dangerous to the point of life-threatening. The non-Perkis camp staff are working on how to get rid of Tony when the campers take things into their own hands, overpowering Tony and locking him away in a barn. With the villain defeated (for now), the campers and the counselors can begin to re-examine what the best summer of their lives could actually look like.
At one point, overlooking the lake, Pat confesses to Gerry that he’s “tired of being the fat guy.” What Pat’s really saying is, “I’m tired of being treated this way.” Pat Finley is a hero, and this movie knows it. Because Pat’s been there. Pat has been the kid bullied for his body and sent away to fat camp as punishment, and now he is here to make sure the kids in his care have as much fun as they possibly can. Pat doesn’t need to become thinner. Pat needs to realize his own value outside the confines of Camp Hope, and then inspire his campers to do the same.
After Tony’s imprisonment, the campers (and counselor Tim) go on something of a junk food bender, prompting Pat to give an inspirational speech the next morning about personal responsibility. Our next montage shows the kids having a good time on a walk with the counselors, and learning about cooking tomatoes with nurse Julie. The campers are no longer being punished, but instead getting the opportunity to learn about movement in nutrition in ways that are fun.
Are there things in this 1995 comedy that absolutely do not hold up? Oh, absolutely! Heavyweights would not be made the same way today, and that’s good. We have better, gentler, and more knowledgeable ways of speaking about fat bodies. Vicious fatphobia was particularly rampant in the 1990s, so to have a film where the fat characters do not just fight back against the villainous manifestation of toxic exercise and diet culture, but also win is really something remarkable.
When the parents come to visit camp, Gerry’s dad says to him, “You look the same,” to which Gerry replies, “Well, I feel good.” The point isn’t that any of the kids lost or gained weight. The point is that, in spite of the horrors inflicted by Tony Perkis, they still had a great summer, something every kid deserves. Having fun should not be a reward for losing weight; it’s a right every child should have. When our Camp Hope heroes ultimately defeat the bullies of Camp MVP in a go-kart race– the pinnacle of 90s summertime achievement– they’ve 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 our friends are. But we also would not mind having another Tony Perkis to defeat.
Even taking down monsters can be fun when you do it with your friends.
Heavyweights is available for streaming on Disney +.