An RV park on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, faces extinction in Amy Nicholson’s lyrical, if somewhat slight, documentary “Happy Campers.” A portrait of a community in flux, Nicholson trains her camera on the inhabitants and seasonal tourists of Inlet View, a rundown park with ocean views that houses lower to middle-class residents. After the property is sold off to developers, who hope to capitalize on the waterfront location and build luxury vacation spots, the residents are forced to leave a place that many have called home for decades.
Nicholson’s decision to embed herself within the group in order to get a sense of their rhythms is a fascinating portal and ethnographic study into a community on the fringe. “Happy Campers” works best when narrowing in on the community that these residents have formed, open to any who manage to stay at Inlet View for a night, a week, or even years. Sometimes, however, the film’s kaleidoscopic approach also backgrounds the peculiarities of the film’s many subjects as people drift in and out of the film’s frame, never giving a sense of who they are outside of their relation to Inlet View. It’s a portrait of this community in the macro, sacrificing specific characterization to get a better sense of the community.
In many ways, this approach is built into the narrative fabric of the film, which eschews individuality to, instead, collectively document what one couple lovingly calls “The Armpit of America.” On the surface, what appears to be a rundown trailer park — where all its inhabitants express initial shock at the state of things — soon gives way to a more nuanced look at how communities, imagined or otherwise, can be formed. While Inlet View is definitely falling apart, those who call the place home — permanently or seasonally — have created something there, using garbage to create makeshift art installations and lawn decor to give the place a sense of character. One delightful moment features two neighbors explaining why they have trash cans with weathervanes on their roofs.
Thus, “Happy Campers” benefits from its quieter moments: lingering on a crab boil that a family fishes off the dock for or a fireworks show that lights up the entire park. But, such quiet elation ultimately succumbs to the end of the season and the end of Inlet View. As residents disassemble their lawns and pack up their RVs (some that haven’t been moved for a long time), Nicholson moves into these people’s homes as they reflect on what this community meant to them and what they have to discard by being pushed out because capitalism has finally course-corrected their little hamlet, realizing that such oceanfront views should only go to those with deep pockets.
These scenes are heartbreaking, as the film begins as a portrait of eccentricities before trojan-horsing an exploration of economic displacement near the end. “Happy Campers” sometimes feels like a lark, only glancing at the cycles of capitalism that erase these communities. But it’s nevertheless an emotional exploration of a group on the fringes and how anyone can find a welcoming community, even in the oddest of places. [A-]