Magic Camp: Film Review

Likeable doc takes the "Spellbound" approach to card tricks

Judd Ehrlich's documentary finds a slew of would-be David Copperfields in the Pennsylvania countryside as they attend Tannen's Magic Camp, held every summer.

NEW YORK — Sleepaway camp meets old-fashioned showbiz in Magic Camp, Judd Ehrlich's look at youths who'd rather pull coins from the air and rabbits from hats than sit around the campfire telling ghost stories. Though not novel or colorful enough to stand out in the crowd of similar docs following kids with unusual ambitions, the film will be liked on the fest circuit.

Held every summer in a mansion on the Bryn Mawr campus, Tannen's Magic Camp is an offshoot of the famous Manhattan magic shop (a connection that's mostly ignored here) that has sold novelties and how-to books for close to a century. Here, teens and pre-teens (almost all of them boys) come with hopes of turning sleight-of-hand routines into a career; many would be content to pay the rent performing the birthday-party circuit, though David Blaine-like stardom (he's one of the camp's alums) wouldn't be unwelcome.

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The movie spotlights a handful of campers, most of whom are chosen in an opening-night talent show to compete at finals a week later. Running the gamut from a sweetly shy twelve year-old to a stout boy so confident in his income-earning potential he has dropped out of high school to pursue a career, the subjects are likeable but display no chops that will astonish viewers. That's just as well, as we get to watch them hone their routines in long sessions where teachers critique everything from wardrobe choices to the patter that connects one trick to the next. Hiawatha Johnson, Jr., the most entertaining of the counselors, embraces a tough-love approach, at one point teasing a "dancing" magician for moving as if he had "jock itch, or crabs or something."

Though little narrative tension develops as the big day approaches, the kids' acts do improve significantly, adding interest to the usual camper drama like homesickness and upsetting news from back home. Happily, the blight of adolescent self-consciousness generates few identity crises here, and is in fact almost a badge of honor: Nerdy tendencies are, it would seem, universal among those who practice shuffling cards all day. It'll be a while before any of these illusionists give Ricky Jay a run for his money, but most would be welcome additions in the backyard when your five year-old celebrates turning six with her neighbors.

Production Company: Flatbush Pictures

Director-Producer: Judd Ehrlich

Directors of photography: Laela Kilbourn, Ryo Murakami

Music: Michael Hearst

Editor: David Lieberman

No rating, 85 minutes