Combining two recent trends in nonfiction filmmaking—the panoramic nerd portrait (Spellbound, Cinemania) and the campumentary (Summercamp!, Girls Rock!)—Monster Camp takes an affectionate look at NERO Seattle, a chapter of the national “New England Role-Playing Organization.” Once a month, fifth-year high-school seniors, free-thinking parents, 24-hour gamers and a weary volunteer staff assemble for a full weekend of costumed hunts and wizardry—described in a title card as Dungeons and Dragons come to life. Among other benefits, the movie provides a primer on NERO’s glossary (“swords” become “boffers”; participants assume character names, such as “Evad the Cook”) and an intriguing glimpse into the phenomenon of on-again, off-again, on-again-but-only-in-the-game romance. (Said of one ex: “He pretty much ignores me, except when he’s got a plot question.”)
More inspired in its choice of topic than in execution, the movie offers sympathy for the misfits that quickly curdles into mawkishness; you might leave eager to see a more skeptical, Frederick Wiseman–esque take on this most curious of institutions. Hoback apparently concurs with the parents who indulge their (sometimes grown) children’s fantasy appetites; the notion that obsessive gaming qualifies as an addiction is an issue raised but not explored. (Indeed, several interviewees have put their educations and careers on hold.) Many gamers participate in NERO Seattle to shut out the outside world. Too often, Monster Camp allows itself that same escape.