Most summer camp movies have some sort of gimmick, but what makes 1985’s Poison Ivy so enjoyable is how well it works without one. Focusing more on the bonds we form at summer camp, NBC’s made-for-TV production features two of its own ’80s stars: Nancy McKeon from The Facts of Life and Michael J. Fox from Family Ties. Fox would soon go on to star in Back to the Future and Teen Wolf later that year, but first TV audiences got to see the two beloved characters lock lips prior to the latter’s fame launching into the stratosphere.
Fox plays Dennis Baxter, a counselor/ladies’ man who falls for Rhonda (McKeon), the camp’s nurse. She’s engaged, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to win her heart.
Poison Ivy is one of those movies that makes you hate “the fiancé” long before you ever meet him, simply because you want the girl to end up with the protagonist instead. If you ever stopped to think about it, you’d feel bad that Dennis isn’t honoring Rhonda’s engagement. Instead, he’s acting very aggressive in pursuing her. Luckily, said fiancé isn’t all that great of a guy after all, so it works out in the end.
The story also follows a group of 11-year-old bunkmates who begin the summer at odds, each struggling with his own personal insecurities, but growing to care about one another with the guidance of Dennis, who changes over the course of the movie as well.
Sounds sappy, but for anyone who grew up at camp, these are the sentiments we’ve held onto all these years later and the reasons why we love summer camp movies so much. Poison Ivy is about the bonds you make at camp and how camp changes you.
Mostly made up of “plug and play” characters at first, the film develops them over the course of the runtime. We do have some who are thinly labeled as either protagonist or antagonist for the sake of creating some easy tension and conflict, but director Larry Elikann is able to mold a few of them to be much more than that.
Elikann and writer Bennett Tramer show some good comedic sensibilities amidst a fairly straightforward plot, but the beauty here is in the tone and mood of the movie in respect to its nostalgic setting.
While it does have the budget and feel of a TV movie, Poison Ivy achieves the simplicity of its formula better than most of its peers, doing so with an organic development rather than a strict storyboard. On display are some of the best kid dynamics I’ve ever seen in any summer camp movie, a vast majority of which revolve around the counselors instead of campers. Here, the friendships are formed in such a sweet way, really focusing on how camp changes you, even when you don’t ever think it will. I suppose that’s the “gimmick” after all.