Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare (now on Netflix) wants to raise awareness about “wilderness therapy,” but it buries the lede a bit. Documentary filmmaker Liza Williams uses the story of Steve Cortisano as an example of a controversial “treatment option” for “troubled teens”: Cortisano created a program where young troublemakers were unwillingly shipped to the Utah desert for a “therapeutic” boot camp where, theoretically speaking at least, participants would be cured of their serial delinquency via survivalist training. Turns out the therapy wasn’t always particularly successful, and that teenagers were suffering serious abuse to the point of significant psychological and bodily harm, and even death. The film – is it true crime? Yeah, kinda – digs into the ups and downs of Cortisano’s endeavors, and eventually points out that he wasn’t the only person exploiting desperate parents and charging them exorbitant amounts of money to “cure” their childrens’ behavioral problems.
The Gist: We open with a Paris Hilton news conference from 2020, when she launched an awareness campaign about wilderness therapy – she attended one of those camps as a teenager, and now hopes to expose how such organizations perpetuate abuse of young participants. Then we jump back to the late 1980s, when Steve Cortisano formed the Challenger Foundation, a company that oversaw wilderness therapy retreats that forced teenagers into a 500-mile march across the Utah desert, supervised by Cortisano and counselors who pretty much acted like drill sergeants. Their goal? Break them down and rebuild them. Cue camcorder footage of a large, intimidating man shouting in a boy’s face until he cries. They call it “tough love” – or is it just flat-out abuse?
We meet a few of the doc’s principal voices: Nadine, who tells how, in 1989, when she was 15, two burly “mountain men” burst into her room in the middle of the night and pretty much kidnapped her. They took her to the Utah camp, where she’d spend the next two months being hot and hungry and pushed to the point of exhaustion; they gave her a handwritten note from her parents reading, “it’s for the best.” Chris Smith, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, who reported on Cortisano throughout his checkered career as a sub-medical “counselor.” And Lance “Horsehair” Jaggar, a former “field director” for Challenger; I’m pretty sure he’s the guy yelling at the kid in the aforementioned camcorder footage, and he states that he believes old-school corporal punishment can be effective in changing childrens’ behavior – “This was it, or they’re going to jail,” he insists. “We were way ahead of our time.”
Keep in mind, this is residual stuff from the Reagan era – Just Say No and all that. Cortisano was famous for his methods, and we see grainy old clips of him being interviewed by Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera on their talk shows. As Challenger grew and grew, Cortisano got rich by charging $16,000 per person for the program; his ex-wife, Debbie Cortisano, says they bought a 6,000 square-foot house, and Smith says Cortisano was driving around in a rented Lamborghini. Meanwhile, oversight in Utah went by the wayside. Nadine testifies that kids were tying their hair up with tampon strings and weren’t given toilet paper, so they wiped themselves with their shirttails. Matthew, interviewed here, ended up hospitalized after “field directors” beat him and dragged him through the rocky desert. And Kristen Chase is not interviewed here, because she died of heat exhaustion during her retreat. Cortisano went to court, facing negligent homicide and child abuse accusations – and was found not guilty on all counts. So he kept going.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Crummy true-crime docs like The Devil on Trial or Dead Asleep come to mind. And there are moments when it feels like the Fyre Festival docs crossed with the Kamp Krusty episode of The Simpsons.
Performance Worth Watching: Maybe Max Jackson, the Utah sheriff who investigated Challenger, except the movie is too sloppy to fully define what exactly he did or keep him in the movie beyond the second act. Maybe Smith, who doggedly followed the Cortisano story for years. Or maybe the people who survived the abuse and are now bravely talking about it in a documentary that kind of doesn’t deserve their powerful testimonials.
Memorable Dialogue: Nadine: “The hardest thing about being there? Knowing my parents did it to me.”
Sex and Skin: None, save for descriptions of sexual abuse.
Our Take: Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare is a Hard Copy-ass sensationalist title that accurately reflects the method Williams too frequently employs. Megadramatic soundtrack cues and heavy-handed edits underscore the film’s calculated, manipulative nature; Williams mostly sticks with a linear narrative, but then loops back for a big revelation at the end of the doc for no reason other than to drop a whopper of a twist that reeks of exploitation, and undermines the seriousness of the topic at hand. It leans on the yuckier tendencies of many cruddy true-crime docs that preceded it.
Not that the topic doesn’t deserve journalistic diligence; the movie just isn’t very good at it. Per the final title cards, which share resources and information to empower survivors of these traumatic teen camps, Williams apparently wants to shine a spotlight on a malfeasant industry that preys on vulnerable young people and their families. She also lends a sympathetic ear to survivors who share difficult, tragic and deeply personal stories.
So good intentions abound, which justify the doc’s existence. But the execution is suspect, setting up predators and prey, but never digging into the complexities of the situation: Why doesn’t Williams find a psychologist to interview, and testify to the effectiveness of wilderness therapy? (A quick internet search tells me it’s a controversial method because not enough research has been done, and there’s little proof that it works.) She talks to Cortisano’s family, but doesn’t ask obvious questions: How do they feel about his work? Is Debbie labeled his ex-wife because they divorced, or because he died of cancer a few years ago? They reveal that the Cortisanos’ daughter (interviewed here) and son (who attended one of the camps) were both “troubled teens” who did drugs and participated in delinquency, but do they recognize the irony of the situation? They say they wished, after Cortisano’s homicide trial, that he would do something else for a living, but aren’t pressed any further.
Williams also seems to shrug in the general direction of a crucial question: Was Cortisano ill-intentioned, or did he actually believe in his methods? I imagine it’s both, especially after he learned how much money he could make. And he stayed in the business, avoiding authoritative scrutiny by taking teens on boat trips to Samoa, where they essentially worked in labor camps. It’s pretty clear the guy was sleazy, and underqualified, and very much in the wrong. I guess Hell Camp gets its point across, but the story feels incomplete, disorganized and, again, exploitationist to the point where it fails to present the topic with the grave seriousness it deserves.
Our Call: Worthy subject, sub-par doc. SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.