When I tell people I’m from New Jersey, I receive sympathetic giggles. When I get the follow-up question, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” -- and I respond, “South Jersey” -- I’m met with an eruption of laughter. Of course, I get it. It’s the state with the governor who was relaxing on the beach, even though it was shut down, mainly because of him. It’s the state with the television show that advocated getting drunk on the boardwalk while fist-pumping. It’s also the state with a populace that is incapable of pumping its own gas. Otherwise known as the Armpit of America, New Jersey is quite the place. And while I understand the hilarity that is associated with residing in a place that is ridiculed by the entire world for being blissfully pleased with its amusing culture, I also firmly believe that New Jersey is a uniquely fun place to grow up. We have beaches, and almost everyone lives pretty close to a major city. In one hour, I can get to Ocean City or Philadelphia; in two, I’m at New York City. Or, I can stay isolated in the suburbs, surrounded by people who are obsessed with going to the gym, the mall, and the beach.
Everyone from New Jersey has a favorite beach to visit during the summer. My family prefers the quietness of Avalon, stopping on the way home in Ocean City for a couple of delicious slices of pizza from Manco & Manco. Other families like Ocean City for its boardwalk and family-friendly atmosphere. Many people from out-of-state (the dreaded shoobies taking up precious space on the Atlantic City Expressway) even make the hike to historic Cape May. Between all of these shore points lies Wildwood, which I know as the beach that takes too long to get to and too long to trek across the sand to the water. Most people make fun of Wildwood as being the destination for drunken high school Senior Weekend trips. Just like you wouldn’t go to McDonald’s expecting a healthy meal, people don’t go to Wildwood for a wholesome family day trip. I believe that’s what makes the place so interesting, which is why I had to watch the 1994 documentary Wildwood, N.J.
Saturating the screen with cool blues, oranges, and purples, representative of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Wildwood, N.J. presents a beautiful compilation of interviews with local girls. The documentary begins with a series of wholesome shots: two adorable twin toddlers singing in matching bathing suits, a retired teacher expressing her love for South Jersey’s beaches, and the Giant Wheel at Morey’s Pier. By introducing such characters and sights, the audience meets Wildwood as if they were looking at state-sponsored advertisements.
Quickly, though, the documentary shifts to a more authentic presentation of Wildwood. Toddlers are replaced with teens wearing crop tops and lipstick, strutting down the boardwalk like prowling prides. The only elderly women we see are a group of women reminiscing about visiting Wildwood in their teens, expressing how they feel about the girls of the ‘90s. “There’s so much temptation out there,” one woman says, “and we need to pray for them.”
No topic is off the table -- the film transitions seamlessly between sex, boyfriends, marriage, careers, parents, womanhood, and self-perception. We learn that while the atmosphere of Wildwood may seem magical and carefree, the lives of the girls who are spending the summers at Wildwood are anything but. One girl in particular is simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, and frightening. She tells stories about the violence she’s experienced on the boardwalk, instigated by both random people she met on the beach and by herself. She discusses her poor home life, and how she wants to support herself and get out of that environment. While many of the girls say they wanted to become models, she says she wants to become a doctor. Certainly the most unique girl that the documentary follows, she gives us greater insight into the people that craft the environment of Wildwood.
Interestingly, Wildwood, N.J. only interviewed one man and one boy. The man was a driver of the infamous tram car (anyone who has been to Wildwood can recall the headaches from the repeated Watch the tram car please! echoing down the boardwalk), who says, “We do have the nicest boardwalk in the world.” The boy, after he is presumably asked about who he’d like to date, expresses his desire for a “nice girl” from North Jersey, maybe somewhere around Newark.
Wildwood, N.J. ends just as it began -- with a shot of the toddlers singing once again, then quietly giggling until the credits appear. It’s an unexpected way to follow up serious conversations about relationships and young independence. Yet, it reminds us of two things. While we can paint broad strokes about the lives of New Jerseyans, and sometimes accurately depict many of its residents, New Jersey is a complex state with people who are dealing with the same issues that everyone else in the world deals with. Additionally, by returning to the girl toddlers, we remember that these teens are just girls. They’re living on their own in Wildwood, working on the Pier, only eating a meal or two a day, and building strong friendships. But they’re just girls --no older than recently graduated college students.
Wildwood, N.J. is an intricate portrait of New Jersey girls looking to have fun during the summer. It feels like a daydream that you might have of going down the shore while suffering the icy winters of the Northeast. Directors Carol Weaks Cassidy and Ruth Leitman perfectly encapsulate the aura of South Jersey’s beaches. For those who’ve spent their teenage years roaming about the Jersey Shore, this documentary will be a nostalgic and poignant return to an idealistic childhood.