Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman direct this lighthearted mockumentary about a struggling theater camp, but its insider humour might only work for am-dram enthusiasts.
‘Mom, Dad…I’m a thespian!’ reads Rebecca-Diane’s bumper sticker in Theater Camp, an ensemble production directed by Molly Gordon (pulling double duty as an actor too) and Nick Lieberman, who wrote the film along with lead actors Noah Galvin and Ben Platt. That unabashedly cheesy phrase gestures at the welcoming queerness of the theatre – its place as an oasis for flamboyant misfits. Alas, there’s something ill-fittingly exclusive about Theater Camp.
Loosely a mockumentary but with no visible crew, narration or talking heads, just occasional explanatory text – the film follows the eccentric teachers and students of AdirondACTS, a theatre camp in upstate New York built on cardboard and chutzpah. When camp leader Joan (played all too fleetingly by Amy Sedaris) is struck down by a coma triggered by strobe lighting at a school performance of Bye Bye Birdie, her clueless finance bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes the reins. With bankruptcy looming, Troy must attempt to keep the ship afloat whilst the camp’s motley crew work on a musical of Joan’s life story.
The kids are winningly brazen and fun to watch – particularly Alan Kim (who stole hearts in Minari), who plays Alan, a tiny bureaucrat determined to become an agent, with great panache. The teachers, however, are the focus. Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt) are bickering best friends (by way of character, the former is into the occult and the latter wears scarves and broods), alumni of the camp who never left.
They have grown fearful that they teach because they cannot do – that proverb haunts places of education and is explored here with a strange mixture of pathos and goofiness. Glenn (Galvin), a stagehand tech wizard who secretly sings and dances, is also hesitant about his potential but communicates his contradictions with more subtlety. Meanwhile, dance teacher Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) and one-man wardrobe department Gigi (Owen Thiele) are less overwrought stalwarts of sass, fully inhabiting their roles as fabulously demented mentors. Ayo Edebiri appears as Joan – a stage combat teacher who lied on her CV – and her confusion about the culty clan she’s just joined provides some welcome groundedness as she baulks at the frequent invocations of Joan’s spirit.
Theater Camp has been created by a close-knit troupe who have worked extensively with one another, several of whom actually met as children at a theatre camp – footage of performances from Gordon and Platt as kids is included in the film. Years in the making, but shot in 19 days and frequently improvised, it contains an effervescent combination of haste, impassioned nostalgia, and genuine affection between cast and crew. Going full method is to be commended, but the result is a back-slapping sesh that forgets its satirical intentions somewhere along the way. It gives a keyhole view into a glittery microcosm, a world of summer and solidarity – one which might seem maddeningly idyllic to audiences from lands without a culture of summer camps, who had less enthusiastic extra-curricular childhoods. Theater Camp thinks itself generous for relating its in-jokes in front of you, but doesn’t seem to give a damn whether you get them or not. You had to be there.
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Published 24 Aug 2023
Points for the pun, but I fear the cringe may run deeper.
The introvert in me screamed, the extrovert snickered.
A thesp fest with some great kids and cameos, but a little cliquey despite its intentions.