Theater Camp – movie review

For anyone who’s ever had a dream, Theater Camp (yes, it’s the US spelling) is essential viewing. This wildly entertaining mockumentary from co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman pays homage to Christopher Guest, but with more heart and less snark.

Gordon and Lieberman have specifically referenced Guest’s films as a major influence. Indeed, you can see immediate parallels with probably his best film, Waiting for Guffman. But the directors have cherry-picked some elements of other Guest ventures like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. The key difference is that Guest generally views his subjects with an outsider’s eye, whereas Gordon and Lieberman are very much in the tent on this one. Even as they’re lampooning the tropes of musical theatre, it’s clear they have a deep love for it. It’s the kind of sharp observation and self-aware humour only an insider can produce.

The film is set in a somewhat ramshackle theatre camp in upstate New York called Adirond-ACTS. It’s a haven for theatre-kids who want to expand their range over the summer school break by participating in a variety of workshops and productions. The camp’s founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) has unfortunately been taken ill (she’s in a coma) on the eve of the summer camp season. That leaves her clueless crypto-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) in charge. Since Troy has zero idea what he’s doing, the running of the camp falls to the enthusiastic but harried staff – drama director Amos (Ben Platt); music director Rebecca-Diane (Gordon); and stage manager Glenn (Noah Galvin). Without Joan’s guiding hand though, it’s going to be tough to see the camp’s showcase musical to completion – particularly since Amos and Rebecca-Diane haven’t even started writing it yet. Meanwhile, Troy is bumbling his way through managing the financially-strained organisation. His lack of appreciation for Joan’s vision opens the door for the snooty rich-kids camp next door to launch a sneaky plan to snap up Adirond-ACTS for themselves.

Theater Camp is an expansion of a short film written by Gordon, Lieberman and Galvin in 2020. They again collaborate on the script, but have added Platt (who appeared in the short). They’ve cleverly structured the screenplay much like a Broadway musical. They also tap into the “let’s put on a show” trope that stretches back to Busby Berkeley’s movies of the 1930s and ’40s like Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band, and continues right through to The Muppet Movie (!) and many more. So you just know there’s going to be a big production number at the end. But when it arrives, it’s an unexpectedly glorious celebration of everything the film stands for.

One criticism of Christopher Guest’s movies is that they sometimes get bogged down in the detail. That’s not an issue here, as Gordon and Lieberman keep things positively skipping along. The humour is pointed without being vicious; with many laugh-out-loud moments. And they pack a lot of plot development into the film’s modest 92 minutes running time. The story is deftly told, with all the loose ends wrapped up.

Ben Platt rebounds from the maligned Dear Evan Hansen adaptation to shine as Amos. Jimmy Tatro plays basically the same character he portrays in American Vandal and Home Economics, but it works in the context of the story. He even gets to show real emotion in one scene. Noah Galvin (Booksmart) is excellent in the (literally) transformational role of Glenn, while Ayo Edebiri (The Bear) has some fine comedic moments early on, before the script sidelines her character. But this film really belongs to co-director Molly Gordon (Shiva Baby) who gives it heart and soul as Rebecca-Diane.

While Theater Camp doesn’t bring anything new to either mockumentaries or plucky underdog stories, it’s a fine example of both. This is a film that sets out to do one thing – entertain – and does it extremely well.

David Edwards

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