Drama kids and stage obsessives, prepare to be seen by this hilarious, affectionate and deeply authentic mockumentary.
September 07, 2023
If you've ever wanted to turn your childhood into a movie, Theater Camp is the latest film that understands. It's also happy to laugh. Unlike Minari, Belfast, The Fabelmans, Aftersun and Past Lives, this isn't a drama, with Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin and Nick Lieberman making a sidesplittingly funny mockumentary about a place that's near and dear to them. What happens when four friends reflect upon their formative years, when they all fell in love with putting on a show? Theater Camp is the pitch-perfect answer. Looking backwards can be earnest and nostalgic, as Gordon and company know and embrace. Going for Wet Hot American Summer meets Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind, they're just as aware that it can be utterly hilarious.
Watching Theater Camp means stepping into Gordon, Platt, Galvin and Lieberman's reality. None are currently camp counsellors, but the realm that they parody genuinely is personal. The film's core quartet initially came into each other's lives via youth theatre. With Gordon and Platt, the picture even boasts the receipts — aka IRL footage of the pair performing as kids — from a time when they were appearing together in Fiddler on the Roof at age four and in How to Succeed in Business at five. This team was first driven to bring their shared experiences to the screen in an improvised 2020 short also called Theater Camp. Now, they flesh out that bite-sized flick to full length as enthusiastically as any wannabe actor has ever monologued. All four co-write, while Booksmart and The Bear star Gordon directs with fellow first-time feature helmer Lieberman. Gordon, Dear Evan Hansen stage and screen lead Platt, plus Galvin — who similarly portrayed that Broadway hit's title role — act as well, playing three of the adults at AdirondACTS.
Gordon and Platt cast themselves as Rebecca-Diane and Amos, Theater Camp's co-dependent life-long best friends forever. The film's central vacation spot was the joined-at-the-hip characters' ultimate escape, and still is. That said, their move into teaching at the same venue is a clear sign that their aspirations as performers haven't come to fruition. Every year now, Rebecca-Diane and Amos guide teen campers through all things theatre — and towards putting on the season's big show, an original that the duo also write and direct. But Theater Camp's summer in focus isn't any old summer. Before the thespians of tomorrow arrive, while the financially struggling AdirondACTS is in fundraising mode, founder Joan (Amy Sedaris, Somebody I Used to Know) falls into a coma due to "the first Bye Bye Birdie–related injury in the history of Passaic County". While she's incapacitated, that leaves her finfluencer son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, a YouTuber and now The Afterparty and Strays talent) in charge.
Also in upstate New York while the sun shines, the histrionics ramp up and everything becomes a performance: the camp's put-upon backstage go-to Glenn (Galvin, The Good Doctor), who is largely ignored and underappreciated by his peers; costume guru Gigi (Owen Thiele, Hacks) and dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham, Katy Keene), who couldn't be more passionate about their respective disciplines; and staff newcomer Janet (Ayo Edebiri, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem), who knows less than the students. Representing a neighbouring private-school camp that's been flashing its cash for years trying to buy AdirondACTS' land from Joan, lawyer Caroline (Patti Harrison, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) struts around in an effort to convince Troy to sell. And there are kids, of course, of varying skills and with an array of theatre-related hopes (Minari's Alan Kim, Young Rock's Bailee Bonick, Chapelwaite's Donovan Colan and The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers' Luke Islam are among them).
Gordon, Platt, Galvin and Lieberman focus their script on the production of Joan, Still, Rebecca-Diane and Amos' centrepiece musical for the year and a tribute to their absent mentor — and, as finances keep proving an issue, Troy's cluelessness constantly has an impact and Caroline is adamant about snapping up the facility, on saving the entire site. Chaos ensues, which is predictable in the film's broad strokes but, crucially, never in its minutiae. While foreseeing that arguments, tantrums, rivalries, broken dreams, battling egos, budget woes and behind-the-scenes mishaps will all flow is easy, the particulars, and the whys and hows of what's going on, rarely take the expected route. Indeed, because they've been there, lived that and are now eagerly and warmheartedly satirising it, the Theater Camp crew perfects the art of going specific to get universal.
Accordingly, if you were once a budding drama geek as well, prepare to be seen and spoofed but also celebrated. Prepare to be showered in lines, references, costumes, sets and moments that couldn't be more authentic, in fact. If you don't know your Damn Yankees from your Hamilton, though, prepare to plunge into a madcap world that's the epitome of youthful fervour and adult malaise swishing together. Theater Camp mightn't dazzle if it didn't feel so bona fide — and if it didn't so gleefully and visibly love playing around in its very own microcosm, just like children discovering their own place to belong at a theatre camp and actors finding themselves in role after role. Gordon, Platt, Galvin and Lieberman couldn't have better riffed on their favourite time as kids and what might've been if they hadn't found success, or enlisted a more-willing cast. In the crowded mockumentary field, they're also spot-on at cannily deploying the genre's tropes.
Watching Theater Camp also means wanting to sit down to see Blackmail and Botox, A Hanukkah Divorce and The Briefcase, The Door & the Salad next. No one can, because they're each purely creations of this very amusing flick; what fun the film's key foursome must've had coming up with those titles alone. Theater Camp is a stage-adoring screen gem that's a lively labour of love and a clear work of fun, too: to lampoon treading the boards, summer camps and the exact place where both meet, and to do so this entertainingly, requires knowing the theatre scene and its training grounds intimately. Wanting to catch The Crucible Jr and even an immersive stage version of Cats (that surely couldn't be worse than 2019's cinema take) — yes, that equally springs from laughing heartily through this ode to performing as a dream, a job, a future, an obsession and a way of life.
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