Missouri -- yikes! -- is among the holy lands of traveling Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer, a super-size general in the Lord's army, who commands young attendees of her Children's Prayer Conference to perform fanatically staged dance routines with sticks in their hands and war paint on their faces. (Some of these preteen high-steppers also sport combat fatigues.) "This is a sick old world," Fischer preaches to her pumped-up kiddie followers through a headset microphone. "Well then, let's just fix it! Somebody get your tools out, and let's just fix this old world!" Later we discover that her kids' "tools" include palm-sized fetus dolls and a stand-up cardboard Dubya.
Fire and brimstone are plenty useful to both sides in this war. Hardly true believers in vérité, documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady don't skimp on their use of droning synthesizer chords to accompany shakily held shots of saved kids speaking in tongues, their faces streaked with tears and their hands raised heavenward. These youth revival meetings might well look scary even without the doc's David Lynch-style soundscape and unsettlingly tight close-ups, although New Yorkers Ewing and Grady are filmmakers for whom almost any kind of rural grotesquerie is part of the sermon; even a small-town drive-through car wash is enough for them to illustrate the evils of quick-fix middle-American cleansing.
Jesus Camp would be a heebie jeebies-inducing portrait of evangelical Christianity in extremis, except for the fact that its haste to equate this sizable fringe with the "other America" makes it more of an art-house horror movie about the Bible Belt as "Missouri, U.S.A."--if not as the world beyond Manhattan. As Ewing confessed to Filmmaker magazine: "We got those iconic shots: the highways, very bland, flat, and the day was overcast. We had sunny shots; we didn't choose them. The palette of the film is in the grays and the blues." Changing the weather to suit the climate, a documentary filmmaker gets to play God.
How frightening can it get out here? Daring to drive west to Devil's Lake, North Dakota (the heartland is all a blur when seen from the car window, and downright surreal when you speed up the footage and add ambient "music" from the Casio), the filmmakers reunite with hairspray-loving Fischer at her Kids on Fire camp. Here, mullet-headed 12-year-old Levi begins to consider a career in preaching, 10-year-old Tory grabs the mic and issues a prophecy that's very hard to hear through her impassioned blubbering, and nine-year-old Rachael talks about the importance of maintaining excitement in the worship ritual, God being naturally disinclined to accept a boring invitation. In dramatic terms, the kids are much better performers than the adults. Fischer, for her part, gets to work with plastic dolls, a Styrofoam scythe, and the computer program that casts the words "SIN" and "DEATH" in a blood-dripping font. Another adult preacher at the camp leads the kids in taking a hammer to coffee cups with the word "GOVERNMENT" written on them; a cabin counselor warns that some of those nighttime ghost stories don't properly honor Him.
Jesus Camp spends barely a third of its running time at the summer retreat; the rest of it strains to suggest that the kids have God on the brain at every waking moment. Ewing and Grady can't merely observe Rachael tossing a bowling ball down the lane in Missouri, U.S.A.: They have to overdub the kid's voice saying, "God, make this a good hit." (Or maybe this nine-year-old has the spiritual power to speak without moving her lips?) More than once, the filmmakers cut from some holier-than-thou parental proclamation to a canine reaction shot -- even the dogs seem to think this Jesus talk is nuts. Low-angle shots of the ever-looming Golden Arches likewise cast aspersions on the subjects. They eat at McDonald's (presumably), so maybe that explains their poor taste in saviors?
Turning the other cheek is for wimps. Either Ewing and Grady never once caught their Christians at a bright moment, or they snipped such moments of clarity in deference to the movie's tonal palette. Still, Fischer does deliver one helluva line from her living-room pulpit: "Some extreme liberals, they have to look at this and be quaking in their boots." Jesus, you can say that again. Preaching to the converted, Ewing and Grady want their audience to know that these unhappy campers are against democracy, against the separation of church and state, against freedom of choice, against public schools, against Harry Potter, and apparently in favor of allowing Pepsi cups in the sanctuary. And goddammit, they vote too! The doc these kids would make with flea-market camcorders couldn't possibly be as ugly as Jesus Camp's absurdly hypocritical critique of the far right's role in escalating the culture war. Maybe the classier kinds of brainwashing that Gap-shopping urban Democrats practice on their brood would appear horrifying too, but it probably wouldn't sell.