Coming into this, I think I was promised something like But I’m a Cheerleader: The Musical, in Spanish. What I got was, if you can believe this, so much more and so much wilder than that. My thoughts throughout were, to quote lovely fifth alternate Alyssa Edwards, ‘what the fuck is going on in here on this day?‘ Avoiding any major spoilers, I will try to explain ー though I’m not sure to what extent that will be possible.
Top Tip: Just expect the unexpected, sis
Whoever came up with the English-language name of Holy Camp! (2017, Javier Ambrossi & Javier Calvo) is a genius, because, girl, it is camp. Set at a Catholic summer camp (see what they did there?), the story follows 17-year-old rebels and amateur singers Maria and Susana. While the other girls go on a trip for a few days, the two are kept after being discovered sneaking out at night. Alone in the camp with only two of the nuns, Sister Milagros and Mother Bernarda, Maria receives an apparition from The Lord Himself singing Whitney Houston. I told you it was wild.
Britney Line Time: “Then like a ray of light // You came my way one night”
Somewhere amongst the chaos I did manage to appreciate the cinematography. The camp is set in an idyllically beautiful forest which we see through the muted haze of the end of a Spanish summer. Susana especially stands out against this background, with her pink ombréd hair and bright yellow T-shirt, perhaps symbolising her rebellious spirit. One memorable sequence shows two dichotomous archetypes of women in quick succession, flitting between the Maria learning prayer with Mother Bernarda and Susana having sex and dancing to reggaeton. However, both are distracted and dispassionate in their activities, showing the futility of following these respective stereotypes.
Ultimately, this is a film about female relationships. Even if you were to count God as a male character, Holy Camp! passes the Bechdel test almost immediately. Refreshingly, the main conflict between our teenage girl protagonists Maria and Susana isn’t because of a boy, and instead comes from the much richer (and frankly more interesting and relatable) pool of growing up and realising what you want out of life. This growth and self-reflection is so powerful that it extends to the nuns too, and the four of them learn and grow from each other and their interactions. Friendship resolution comes from willingness to be vulnerable, and it is wonderful to see.
The lesbian angle is, unfortunately, a secondary storyline, and somewhat of a slow-burner. However, when one girl reveals her romantic feelings, it is welcomed, and not mocked, by the group. This felt unexpected, but sincere. Besides, I didn’t find myself searching for explicit queerness, distracted as I was by God (we assume) singing Whitney in various rhinestoned suits.
The musical theatre of it all extends beyond these scenes too: from your typically cheesy “who am I?” ballad, to diegetic performances by Mother Bernarda and ‘Suma Latina’ (that’s Susana and Maria’s artist name). One of the film’s morals seems to be that group choreo is the way to find God, and, honestly, I’m here for that. Holy Camp!’s directors are a gay couple, and thus it makes sense that a lot of it is gloriously camp: watch out for the nun habit reveal coat.
Biggest Gay Mood: Having a costume change ready at any moment.
At the same time, the film manages to be just grounded enough to occasionally lull you into a sense of normality; while forays into the bizarre are plentiful, they continue to take you by surprise. And just when you think it can’t get any crazier, you’re transported to the next plane of existence.