While the mockumentary lacks focus, its stellar cast and humor make it a deft exploration on the joy (and despair) of the theater.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
For decades, the great American institution of summer camp has been fodder for cinema, and for good reason. A group of hormonal teenagers put together in an artificial environment is the perfect recipe for drama, with the gorgeous backdrop of the outdoors.
Movies about performing arts camps have the added bonus of fun musical performances and the idiosyncrasies of “artistic types.” Directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman mine these tropes for Theater Camp, and while the results are mixed, it certainly has the right camp spirit.
Based on a short film created by Gordon, Lieberman, and stars Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, Theater Camp is a mockumentary that follows a summer at the performing arts camp AdirondACTS. Camp Director Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) has fallen into a strobe-light-induced coma while talent scouting a potential camper in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) has taken over as camp director while Joan is hospitalized, but is more interested in being a “rise and grind” style hustler than helping campers find their muse.
Fortunately for the kids, AdirondACTS has a small but dedicated staff, including teachers Amos Klobuchar (Platt) and Diane-Rebecca (Gordon), who are writing a musical in honor of their incapacitated leader titled “Joan, Still.” However, their artistic vision is being stifled both by AdirondACTS’ dire financial situation as well as the fact that Amos and Diane-Rebecca haven’t actually written the musical yet.
The plot of Theater Camp is nothing new, and Gordon and Lieberman rely on some familiar tropes: an outsider taking ownership of a close-knit community; a cash-strapped camp vs. an upper-class one; and a ragtag group of misfits trying to put on a show despite difficult circumstances. You won’t see much of a fresh spin on anything story-wise, but there’s something comforting about revisiting a well-worn premise.
Where Theater Camp does shine is its colorful cast of characters. Amos and Rebecca-Diane make the perfect codependent “gay guy/straight girl” friendship. Platt plays Amos as self-important and harsh to the point of cruelty, yet his obvious desire to impact his campers’ performances keeps him from being unlikeable. Rebecca-Diane is more subservient and kind, but also convinced she can channel Joan’s (not yet dead) spirit. Most actors would be tongue-in-cheek when portraying Rebecca-Diane’s ersatz clairvoyance, but Gordon plays it completely straight to hilarious results. The pair also have a great chemistry, owed in part due to Platt and Gordon’s real life friendship.
Tatro is well within his comfort zone as the somewhat loveable meathead Troy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tatro’s American Vandal character Dylan Maxwell- if Dylan had a smidge more brains and tons more empathy. The rest of the counselors also have their charm, specifically underappreciated tech director Glenn Winthrop (Noah Galvin) who dreams of being on the stage instead of the sound booth, and teacher Janet Walch (Ayo Edebiri), who lied about everything on her resume.
While the results are mixed, it certainly has the right camp spirit.
While everyone shines in their roles, the cast sheet is perhaps a little too full. Any of the characters in Theater Camp could have been the film’s protagonist, but it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers wanted anyone to be in the background. As such, instead of an overarching plot, we’re given a patchwork quilt of subplots, and while each them is compelling, they never feel complete.
Fortunately, Theater Camp’s humor more than makes up for what it lacks in plot. I may love the theater, but you can’t deny that the acting subculture is full of absurdities. Whether its nonsensical acting advice (Amos tells a young camper to “embody having IBS”), adults trying to shoehorn kids into mature productions (one of the plays is “The Crucible Jr.”), or the self-seriousness of acting teachers (Amos forces a young actor to apologize to her scene partner when he discovers she’s using a tearstick), each joke is delivered with a dead-pan seriousness that uncovers how silly the thespian world can be.
But while the humor is the draw of Theater Camp, the young campers are its heart. While the story is focused on the adults, much of the runtime is spent watching the kids do their things. There are montages of kids singing, dancing, and practicing. We see the agony and ecstasy of finding- or not finding- your name on the casting sheet; the frustration and exhilaration of a young performer discovering their voice; and, of course, a finale with a spectacular musical number. It’s a joy to watch the campers just enjoy their experience, especially contrasted against the more jaded adults.
In many ways, Theater Camp is like a summer camp production. It’s flawed, sure, but there’s talent there. More than anything, it has an earnestness that makes the watch worth it.
Theater Camp is now playing in theaters.