For documentary filmmakers, one of the nice things about finding a subjects who believe they are absolutely right is that they tend not to be camera-shy. So it is with the subjects of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Jesus Camp, which follows a group of kids from Kansas to an evangelical Bible camp in North Dakota called "Kids On Fire" and back again. Framed by the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and subsequent appointment of Samuel Alito, it makes no attempts to hide the fact that it's also telling the story of a general change in American politics and the ever-growing power of the Christian Right. Trouble is, one story has a bad habit of overshadowing the other.
The film's never more interesting than when it digs into the details, as in an early scene capturing some home-schooling in which a boy watches educational videos hosted by a dinosaur puppet who mocks both evolution and the Big Bang Theory. His mother later continues the science lesson with a laughing dismissal of global warming. Even before they reach the camp, the film's kids live in an environment designed to keep anything that might challenge their faith at several arms' lengths.
At camp, it only gets more intense. Kids On Fire director Betty Fischer never appears less than earnest. She's no charlatan and clearly believes that her flame-drenched, scare-tactic PowerPoint presentations will set her kids on the right path. But for anyone who values free thought and open discussion, there's a serious creep factor to the way she speaks almost admiringly of the training camps of "the enemy" (which seems to be all Muslims) and the way she encourages near-idol worship of a cardboard George W. Bush.
These moments speak for themselves, so why do Ewing and Grady feel the need to tip their hand by underscoring it all with creepy ambient music or by using Air America host Mike Papantonio as a Greek Chorus expressing the voice of reason? It's as if they'd taken the techniques of the Jesus campers too close to heart: Admit no doubt and keep preaching until they've got the point.