There’s a certain type of kid who knows they want to be an actor, and attending a theater camp allows them to meet others like them. But the kids aren’t the only ones who may bring plenty of drama to camp. Theater Camp, from co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, is a hilarious story based on their own experiences, showcasing the talent, excess, and absurdity of the semi-professionals who spend their summers teaching young performers. It’s a comedy that skillfully splits its time between its formidable young actors-in-training and the camp staff with their own issues.
Theater Camp is presented in a mockumentary format, lamenting through onscreen titles in its opening minutes that its intended subject, Camp Adirondacts director Joan (Amy Sedaris), is in a coma following a seizure during a performance of Bye, Bye, Birdie. Her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, playing a version of his Home Economics character), takes over the camp for the summer, and best describes himself as having BDE (Business Development Expertise), while questioning what a “gay play” is after learning about straight plays and musicals. As he deals with dwindling finances, the original show penned by lifelong best friends Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) is threatened by the teachers’ realization that they may no longer both want the same things in life.
This film’s script, a collaboration from Gordon, Lieberman, Platt, and Noah Galvin, is overloaded with rapid-fire jokes that parody everything from Broadway to character development to complete and total cluelessness. It cuts back and forth between snippets of the kids auditioning and performing and the adults squabbling, which makes for an energizing and wholly entertaining experience. The kids are dealing with concepts way too mature for them (one expresses that he couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be a father), while the adults respond childishly and cattily to many scenarios, particularly when commenting on their pupils (one girl is apparently quite believable as a French prostitute).
Those who went to theater camp will surely enjoy the many references that are only so exaggerated, and those who didn’t will still find tremendous enjoyment in this production. While it sometimes nearly crosses a line into truly over-the-top territory, it reels itself back in and ends on a surprisingly sentimental note. The original musical numbers work well as functional mockeries that manage to be slightly catchy, especially as they go through a fine-tuning process from first introduction to the show-stopping performance that closes out the film.
Gordon and Platt are clearly having fun with their roles, and it’s good to see the real-life lifelong best friends (since age three) so comfortable making fun of themselves, and Galvin also has a terrific part as the hard-working and inventive Glenn. In addition to the superb child cast, which delighted attendees at the Sundance premiere with a live medley of the original musical Joan, Still, the ensemble includes a number of funny performers. Ayo Edibiri as a new hire with no credentials, Patti Harrison as an opportunistic developer, and Alan Kim (Minari) as a budding agent are among the standouts. It’s clear that everyone is having fun here, and that experience is infectious. This is a film best viewed with a large audience, since any number of viewers may find something else funny within it. Theater Camp is part nostalgia, part satire, and the combination of those two themes works wondrously.
Theater Camp is screening in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The film has been picked up by Searchlight Pictures.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute