What do you do when the world you’re in is too boring, too stressful, or too miserable to endure? You retreat into your own imaginary world, of course. “Monster Camp” is one of the many documentaries taking off from the ilk of “Trekkies” and “Ringers,” in which we spend a time in the lives of folks who just love their hobby. They don’t just love their hobby, but it’s something of a way of life that manages to have a positive influence on them and everyone around them.
Director Cullen Hoback (of the utterly fantastic 2013 documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply”) has a knack for depicting the odd and surreal individuals without taking away their dignity. He does the same with “Monster Camp” pays his subject the proper respect for their hobby and lifestyle. Hoback explores the role playing sequences with grown adults in costumes, and never once will you think these individuals as freaks or eccentric. Hoback is a director I’m a fan of, because when he’s on, he’s just on. His short dramedy “Freedom State” made being insane so damn fun and dared to challenge our perceptions of normality. Hoback chronicles the events of the Nero Franchise, a giant Live Action Role Playing (or L.A.R.P.ing) event in the vein of Civil War re-enactments in which a large group of teenagers, and adults.
Hell even kids participate to bond with their parents, travel to certain wooded parts of the country (there are different franchises all over the country) and take part in a grand fantasy role playing game for an entire weekend. Everyone involved is passionate about this game. And they should be, as it looks like a lot of fun. Hoback trails the group and its individual members as they gear up for another session and prepare to take on the undefeated grand champion, The Strega. They don’t just dress in costumes and pretend to fight with their own personal powers and abilities. There’s a massive rule book, a mythology, spells, props, costumes, paints, a large retreat, rules, warnings of hypothermia.
The creators of this event even created large replicas of dragons and monsters for the players to interact with. The Nero Franchise takes its events seriously, and they encourage non-violent expressions of battles and fantasy. Swords are made of foam, monsters are simply costumed folks painted up. You can’t help but revel in their excitement and enthusiasm for what becomes a veritable sport. Director Hoback adds a sense of style to the folks of the Nero Franchise, as he delves into their lives, never undermining their own obsession for the fantastic, and the weird. Wisely, director Hoback also doesn’t shy away from the ill effects of this obsession, expressing how their lifestyle has a definite downside to it.
Some of the players have lost relationships, are still in high school beyond their mandatory four years. Meanwhile, many of the people featured are addicted to “World of Warcraft,” and have admitted that it’s a dangerous hobby because of its high potential for complete, utter addiction and time consumption. Then there are some people like J.P. that have completely written off reality and just live their fantasy day in and day out. Yet, Hoback explores that some of these people need fantasy like others need religion. It just provides security and a stability that they’re sorely missing.
“Monster Camp” is a wonderful documentary about the healthiness and purpose of escapism that is especially relevant in today’s geek climate where LARPing is so much more accepted and embraced. Hoback has a sheer skill for tapping in to the surreal and picturing a corner of humanity that is endearing and deserving of our respect.