Culture Trips

A Week Away review – out-of-touch Netflix play for Christian audience | Musicals

A Week Away, Netflix’s High School Musical-style play for the contemporary Christian teen market, feels strangely unrooted from our timeline. The musical about a week at a Christian summer camp, directed by Roman White, is ostensibly set in the present yet transparently derives its musical and choreography cues from mid-2000s Disney projects like the aforementioned series and Camp Rock, and lead Kevin Quinn looks eerily like Zac Efron circa 2009. It’s a coming-of-age (and faith) movie in which there are barely any phones to be found.

The film opens with a premise too pat and aloof to suspend one’s disbelief: wayward orphan Will Hawkins (Quinn) has stolen a cop car, among a slew of petty crimes, and the consequence? After polite arrest for running from an officer with guitar case in hand, a polite admonishment from Children and Family Services about the threat of juvie (yes, this teen is white; no, this film does not seem at all cognizant of how this plays after last summer’s protests against anti-black police brutality, or of race at all). Luckily for Will, he’s swiftly fostered by a black mother, Kristin (Sherri Shepherd), and her son George (Jahbril Cook) on the condition that he spend a week at the Christian summer camp where Kristin works.

I have no idea how such conditional fostering would work legally, but that’s beside the point in this ludicrous, grating ploy for tacitly conservative audiences. The teen fare of the Disney Channel on which it’s modeled has often required a laughable suspension of reality belief, but A Week Away, arriving a decade-plus after the High School Musical heyday, feels all the more obtuse for it. The film, written by producer Adam Powell and Gabe Vasquez, is like Camp Rock in eager, evangelical overdrive: immediately after Will agrees to attend a week of camp rather than state institutionalization, Kristin breaks into song about God’s grace and the group “follows our leader” to Camp Aweegaway (pronounced like a slurred “a week away”).

The ebullient singing and dancing continues from there through the usual straightforward teen movie beats: Will falls on sight for Avery (Bailee Madison), the daughter of the camp’s queasily confident director (David Koechner); afraid of turning off Avery’s perfect-girl image, Will lies about his identity, thus setting the plot’s ticking time bomb. There’s a halfheartedly applied obstacle in the form of smug camp regular Sean (Iain Tucker) who suspects Will’s natural charm as duplicitous (the film has enough self-awareness to at least mock self-righteous mission trips). Camp hijinks, water sports and Will’s conversion to faith ensue.

The low stakes of the camp drama and the soundtrack’s indistinguishably familiar pop (adaptations of contemporary Christian hits, plus four original songs) aim for easy, catchy, comfortable fun – a breezy intention which casts some of the script’s insensitive moments in even harsher light. Take, for example, a cringey scene in which Koechner, wearing a headdress, presides over the mostly white camp’s Native American-style ceremony to select teams for the week’s “Warrior Games” through the dramatic application of war paint. Or a scene during said Warrior Games that roves through a paintball match. It’s meant to establish Avery’s beguiling competitiveness and her connection with Will, but plays like a strange ode to war; the sweet couple’s triumphant moment is a slo-mo shot of them emerging from a shed, Mr-and-Mrs-Smith-style, two guns a-blazing each.

That these assumptions on what’s unremarkable are made by a movie appealing to America’s largely white, culturally conservative evangelical audience is not surprising. Also not surprising is how closely Netflix’s foray into the faith-based market aligns with the Disney Channel, which was always faith-adjacent if not outright evangelical (Disney talent of the Camp Rock era, including stars Demi Lovato and the Jonas brothers, publicly wore purity rings signaling their intention to remain virgins until marriage). There’s significant Disney overlap with the production: Quinn starred on the Disney Channel series Bunk’d, Cook will lead the upcoming Disney movie Spin, and musical director Adam Watts has written and produced music for High School Musical, Camp Rock and Hannah Montana.

Netflix will always play for wider audiences by mining every niche, including America’s relatively siloed Christian content subculture. Films centered on faith can be empathetic, open-hearted, inviting, and I say that as an admittedly skeptical secular viewer. But A Week Away is too shallow for that, and its suburban conservative pandering appears even worse compared to Netflix’s recent slate of nuanced, genre-challenging teen films such as Moxie and The Half of It. It’s by the fading, overdone numbers, chasing magic best confined to the late 2000s.

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