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‘We Can Be Heroes’ Review: A Big-Hearted Celebration of LARP-ing Teens

Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State and Girls State have carved out an appealing niche by asking the provocative question, “What would government be like if teenage boys or teenage girls were in charge?”

Erasing the confines of gender binary and reality, Carina Mia Wong and Alex Simmons’ We Can Be Heroes works as a companion text by asking, “What would an alternate world be like if it could be wholly reimagined by teenagers?”

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All three documentaries are explorations of power, opportunities to see the best (and occasionally worst) of what might happen when an ascending generation takes on its destined roles as leaders, learners, heroes and villains.

We Can Be Heroes is a documentary that makes your heart swell and makes you instantly protective of its young subjects, except that for over 86 minutes you watch those subjects slay demons and reshape a dying universe. These kids may not always be comfortable in the humdrum, ordinary world, but the film is full of hope.

The documentary is set at the Wayfinder Experience Summer Camp in upstate New York. It’s a one-week LARP — live action role-playing — program in which the campers prepare for and then spend multiple days completing a well-structured fantasy campaign. Rulers will rise and fall, alliances will be put to the test.

The kids are creative, smart, energetic, quirky, weird, nerdy and filled with exhausting enthusiasm.

“I feel like most people here are very neurodivergent,” observes one camper within minutes of arriving, not as criticism or concern but as an excited recognition of commonality. However the kids identify, they’re mostly just teenagers.

Well, not all teenagers, because one of the first kids we meet is 11-year-old Cloud, who announces his proficiency with swordplay — he does lightsaber combat for two hours per day — and proudly displays a “Comedian of the Year” award from school. There’s 17-year-old Abby, an aspiring storyboard artist acclimating to a new feeding tube after missing much of their senior year in high school because of medical issues. Homeschooled Dexter, working the third volume of an epic fantasy literary series, nervously wonders if his crush from the previous summer will return. Miranda is hoping that her last summer at Wayfinder will prepare her for going away to college, while Max hopes everybody appreciates the elaborate suit of armor that he spent the whole year building.

It’s all overseen by camp director Judson, whose own Wayfinder experience helped them confront teenage battles with depression.

Will Clare and Claire, the counselors who outlined The Last Green, the summer’s complex campaign, be able to make it a week to remember?

We Can Be Heroes works because the filmmakers do two adjacent and difficult things very well.

First, they respect the kids.

It’s easy for a documentary like this to push audience reactions in one way or another with a comic piece of editing or a lachrymose musical cue. Instead, just as the campers’ enthusiasms and fears are without subterfuge, the filmmaking is mostly without agenda (other, I suppose, than “this camp is pretty cool and the campers are pretty cool”).

Even when the documentary goes for humor, the humor isn’t directed at the campers. Dexter is terrified of ticks and this, given the rural location, isn’t unreasonable. But he’s really, really terrified of ticks and some of his strategies are aggressive, and the directors let him explain himself fully at every turn and most viewers are going to end up feeling that the fear is reasonable and probably pretty relatable. The same is true of his crush, which is treated as exactly what it is: a wholly universal summer camp rite of passage. I’ll say that both the tick thing and the crush — identified symbolically by their red Converse — go on too long but in a way that’s true to Dexter.

Mostly, though, the camera is on the ground in a cacophony of teens approaching everybody on their own level, whether it’s Cloud’s frustration at how his aggressive improvising is being received or Miranda’s pure glee at getting to be a princess for the campaign.

Second, they respect the activity.

These are, let’s be clear, teenagers running around hitting each other with foam swords and practicing their death throes. But the directors show the meaning and purpose behind every bit of preparation.

When the days of rehearsals and character-building and prop manufacturing are complete and the campaign begins, Wong and Simmons, plus the team of cinematographers and editors, jump right in with the characters. The aspect ratio changes to cinematic widescreen. Dan Deacon’s score reaches for operatic grandeur. We Can Be Heroes becomes The Last Green (and probably becomes The Last Green for a bit too long), the story of the citizens of a mythical world confronting an encroaching dark void that threatens all of them.

The dark void that hovers over We Can Be Heroes is COVID and the effect that multiple years of pandemic restrictions had on children who, in some cases, lost all form of socialization. Wayfinder has existed for 20 years, but the urgency to offer its campers a connected experience has presumably never been greater. More than any documentary I’ve seen, and without even a whiff of politics, Wong and Simmons’ film shows the real cost of loneliness and persuasively illustrates how, even in a situation with hexes, spells and elixirs, companionship is the truest magic of all. That’s hopeful stuff.

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