When a charming-but-troubled teen learns that his latest mischief could land him in a juvenile detention center and his only way out is to spend a week at church camp, he processes the scenario in a song and dance number to the ’90s CCM anthem “The Great Adventure” by Steven Curtis Chapman.
If this idea makes you smile even a little, you’ll probably enjoy A Week Away, Netflix’s new faith-friendly musical.
A Week Away offers heaps of nostalgia for parents who grew up listening to Christian acts like Chapman, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Audio Adrenaline. CCM hits from the ’90s get the musical theater treatment at Camp Aweegaway. In the youth pastor–inflected pun from enthusiastic camp director David (David Koechner—yes, Todd Packer from The Office), “Every once in a while, somebody finds out that they ’re just a week away from an experience that changed everything for them.”
The movie follows Will Hawkins, played by Disney star Kevin Quinn, as he adjusts to Christian camp culture, tries to fit in, and gains the trust of David’s beautiful daughter Avery, played by Bailee Madison. Initially resisting the fun and the friendship of his cabinmate George (Jahbril Cook), Will must decide if these “Jesus freaks” are people he can trust with the painful parts of his life or if he is better off on his own.
As someone who spends the entire summer at a Christian camp where my husband is director, I get the appeal of setting a musical in the nostalgic cabins and woods where so many of us played, made friends, and grew in our faith.
For the staff, summer camp can feel like an elaborate production. It takes energy and a tiny bit of acting to get campers excited about activities that are outside their comfort zones. Without the right welcome, newcomers can feel like they’ve been tossed into a choreographed dance that no one bothers to teach them, like Will upon arriving at Camp Aweegaway.
The Christian Camping and Conference Association advised the producers of A Week Away, and it shows. Filmed at two camps in Nashville, the camp scenes are an authentic glimpse at the kinds of activities many Christians spent their summers doing.
There’s a sorting ceremony where new campers are assigned into competing tribes (with hokey names like the “Crimson Angels” and “Azure Apostles”), competitions among the tribes (trying to maintain a veneer of good sportsmanship but desperate for the bragging rights), acapella worship around a campfire at night, and campers standing up to share testimonies of what they’ve learned during their week at camp.
A Week Away gets a lot of the details of the Christian camp experience right—except for the most important one. Though the film is certainly family friendly, there’s not much that’s explicitly Christian at Camp Aweegaway apart from the soundtrack.
The few references to God’s love for all his children don’t add up to more than the old VeggieTales theme (another ’90s Christian culture staple): God made you special, and he loves you very much. When Will and Avery encourage their pals George and Presley to have more confidence by singing “God made you how you should be—good enough,” the crescendo falls flat.
Some of the central characters have experienced devastating trauma. Will hammers Avery with hard questions about why God would take away both of his parents, and Avery, who continues to grieve her own mother’s death, doesn’t have much of a response. This scene left me wondering why the writers would introduce Job-sized questions without the room for substantial answers. Don’t get me wrong: Life has lots of unanswered questions. But when characters ask hard questions and get insubstantial responses, the joyful resolution feels contrived.
The plot also puts a lot of pressure on individual characters and the camp setting itself. Even though I love camp, I know that a single summer experience—no matter how good and godly—is not enough to heal such deep losses. These struggles require professional help and support over the long term, such as through Christian counseling and regular church community.
But while not explicitly stated, there is grace on display. Sean, the camp’s jealous Pharisee, believes he’s earned God’s favor through his impressive works like praying and saving narwhals in the Arctic. When he tells campers about Will’s rap sheet, campers are far angrier at Sean’s smug self-righteousness than they are scandalized by Will’s past.
The few adults in A Week Away, mainly just David the director and George’s mother, Kristin, played by Sherri Shepherd, are not the oblivious, uncaring, or bumbling caricatures we’re used to seeing in teen movies. They are caring and wise; they know Will’s past, but it doesn’t stop them from loving him.
There is a lovely worship scene where the camp breaks into an acapella rendition of “Awesome God” around the campfire. Avery shares Jeremiah 29:11 with the campers (without context, of course), but it’s clear she’s struggling to believe the words herself. When “Awesome God” faded to the background in order to foreground Avery and Will’s insecurities and fears (set to For King and Country’s “God Only Knows”), I thought it was an interesting mashup but still felt frustrated. No one at Camp Aweegaway seems to know how God’s awesomeness makes a difference in everyday life.
Though the film goes flat on some of the more serious themes, it hits all the high notes when it comes to fun. This is no high school musical: The actors turn in solid performances, and the dancing is stellar. Anyone who has ever sung “Big House” with the accompanying hand motions will enjoy seeing the professionals run wild with the choreography during the credit reel. Two brief cameos by CCM legends had me laughing out loud. The modern twists on CCM classics and upbeat original songs by Adam Watts make for a fun soundtrack that is now in heavy rotation on my children’s playlists.
Despite what David tells Will, a week away cannot change everything, but the week at camp does put Will’s life on a different trajectory. He isn’t quite a new person, but his new friendships give him a chance to be the seed in the Mark 4 parable that falls on fertile ground, rather than the seed on rocky ground that sprouts and is scorched by the sun because it has no roots.
Summer camp is such an integral part of my life that it can sometimes feel routine. A Week Away reminded me how much fun is at the heart of summer camp. And it made me grateful for the camps that give kids a safe place to struggle.
We might not nail the tune or the choreo as well as the crew at Camp Aweegaway, but our camps offer the real thing: meaningful relationships and a setting that points kids to the love of God demonstrated in Jesus.
Megan Fowler is a contributing writer for CT. She spends her summers at Seneca Hills Bible Camp and Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, where her husband serves as executive director.
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