For all the grand gestures of musical theater, Theater Camp, a half-hearted and lifeless comedy by a group of Hollywood friends set at a summer performing arts troupe, has a strange flatness. The legacy, obsolete genre of fake documentary and the over-zealous and/or pretentious theater genres have familiar satirical targets. But the real takedown comes from a scenario that should have looked much funnier on paper than it did in practice.
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After the film’s overly exaggerated Sundance standing ovation, co-director Molly Gordon, along with her boyfriend Nick Lieberman, said the 94-minute film was “literally, we’re out of wanting to do something with our friends.” That’s pretty true about how it feels to watch Theater Camp – as if a group of friends are sitting exchanging unfamiliar inside jokes with unoriginal pieces that probably kill in their audience but gush out on the screen.
Written by Gordon, Lieberman and friends/former Evan Hansens/engaged couple Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, Theatre Camp expands on the band’s 2020 short film of the same name. Like the original, Platt and Gordon star as overly serious theater camp instructors who are captured by an unseen documentary crew, this time brought to a bespoke country music arts camp called AdirondACTS. The lakeside community is in turmoil when cash-strapped matriarch Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma caused by strobe light in a middle school production, Bye Bye Birdie; An extravagant caricature of a social media hypermaniac, vlogger son Troy (YouTube star Jimmy Tatro) steps into this place with zero knowledge of musical theater to make an “introduction”. (One of the best parts of the movie is that the camp consistently invokes Joan as a beloved, dead soul while she’s still alive).
The plot revolves loosely around the relationship of interdependent best friends Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) falling apart as they compose an original musical about Joan’s legacy (the movie’s best decision yet, it tells us the complete Joan showing a few minutes. Still) and Troy’s frantic attempts to keep the place afloat. There’s a brief side-plot featuring the ruthless, emotionless board member of the neighboring camp (played by the always hilarious Patti Harrison) who sees an opportunity for expansion, and the general excess of the camp’s many personalities, including dance instructor Clive (Nathan). Lee Graham) and biting costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele). Galvin, the most conspicuous of the adult cast, instills an anxious heart on a “third-generation stage manager” who yearns for attention, which pays off in the film’s truly entertaining, emotional musical finale. (Playing the oddball type Ayo Literary also draws attention in a handful of scenes where she’s hired as a totally underqualified local to keep costs down.)
The filmmakers seem to have a warped understanding of what makes their movies fun – a promising premise that’s always ripe for parody – entertaining. The most glaring example is the format; The genre of mockumentary is already overrated, and Theater Camp is committed to it halfway through in the least helpful way – the camera shakes, the editing is distractingly tense, and footage goes through shutters or door cracks unnecessarily. There are usually no fourth wall breaking or speaking heads providing mobility for this type of setup. The visual language is often chaotic and sometimes inconsistent, but not in a way that emphasizes the playful cacophony of a summer camp. The mismatched aesthetic blends further with the film’s unsaturated color palette for a grainy, muted texture—a choice that undermines rather than increases the excess of characters and the overall increasing intensity of a musical theater camp for over-enthusiastic kids. (For a mockumentary that raises the campfire of youth theater and is actually funny, see: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.)
And for all its star power, I wished the movie didn’t focus on the typically self-obsessed adults – I like Gordon as an actress, but nothing new in his parody of a sessional, “energy-healing” white woman – but so many talented young actors are excited to be there and it’s fun to watch. Theater Camp rewards us, at least at the end, with the kids’ performance of Joan, Still, with all the warm, serious charm that the previous 80 minutes had been missing. The crux of Theater Camp, Joan, is that Still’s very beleaguered, obviously distasteful production is actually good, ridiculous, bad, but extremely resolute. It’s not enough to make up for the movie around it, but it’s a good reminder of the intense belonging that theater camp can evoke, and what a self-conscious film about it can be.