SXSW 2024: WE CAN BE HEROES Shows Where Play Collides With Reality

In my youth, roleplaying always served as an escape. Primarily it was escape from the tension and difficulties of my life, but it was also a release valve from the seeming mundanity of day to day living. And of course it allowed me, a socially awkward teen whose brain was brimming with ADHD, a space to feel confident and competent.

Cut forward some 25 years and I now find myself working in education, and seeing reflections of that insecure teen in the students I now teach. And thankfully with the growing distigmitation of roleplaying as a pastime, the therapeutic and spiritual freedom it provides feels more accessible than ever. 

Am I a bit jealous? Perhaps. Okay, absolutely. But not nearly as jealous as I am of the campers at the Wayfinder Experience, a sleepaway live action roleplay camp in upstate New York that specializes in serving neurodivergent teens seeking a safe space for social outlet. Running for two decades now, and largely run by former campers, Wayfinder teaches social-emotional skills and self actualization through the time honored traditions of improv, vulnerability and a more than a little make believe.

Wayfinder is the subject of a new documentary, We Can Be Heroes, that premiered at SXSW this year. The film chronicles one summer through the perspectives of a handful of campers, some veterans, others newcomers, all coming with the full weight of adolescence in the 2020s. Yes, COVID looms large within the context of these youths sense of the world, but so does climate change, harsh political tribalism and a growing sense that the world around them is most likely doomed. Also, can they gather up the courage to speak to their crush?

Directors Alex Simmons and Carina Wong capture all of this with shocking sensitivity. But they are assisted by choosing intriguing subject matter. The campers at Wayfinder are endearingly earnest, attempting to sort through their complex inner lives and yearning for a place of belonging or at least a sense of self. Despite their youth, many of them have a deep well of feelings about everything from their looming college years to their own mortality. 

Often these are dealt with a light touch, but trivially. Both the counselors of Wayfinder and the lens of Simmons and Wong take seriously the concerns of their charges. When one camper is terrified of ticks, despite never even seeing on, they walk him through those emotions compassionately.

The most clever choice is how they choose to present the lines between reality and the fantasy. Whenever the campers fully envelope themselves into “the adventure game,” the freeform improv roleplaying at the heart of Wayfinder, the camerawork shifts from beautiful but objective documentary filmmaking to a dramatic, “cinematic” style that captures the epic ness of the circumstances in their own minds. The precise plot of the story they are immersed within, known as the Last Green, is somewhat difficult to follow, but the broad swaths are captivating and draw you deep into its lore, as determined by the campers.

And that lore doesn’t shy away from their larger concerns. A story about a creeping darkness that threatens to blot out all the liveable land to a final small patch of land and the rising political tensions that causes, the parallels to the world these youth see every day on their phone is not hard to recognize. They are wrestling with the world they have inherited, and discovering their place within it.

So yes, I am jealous of the campers of Wayfinder. I wish I could have gone during my own yearning, terrified adolescence. And honestly? No small part of me even wishes I could go now. One two three, let us play.

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