(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman
The spirit of Waiting for Guffman endures in Theater Camp! This rambunctious glee club mockumentary delivers the laughs thanks to a spirited cast and a commitment to the material. Much like Christopher Guest’s 1997 community theatre comedy, this film directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman finds an amiable group of aspiring ingénues united by their love for the stage. While Theater Camp doesn’t necessarily break any ground with mockumentary form, its upbeat spirit proves contagious. With a good sense of humour and a wonderful sense of play, Theater Camp earns its jazz hands.
The stage for the fun and games is Camp AdirondACTS, a well-worn summer oasis for aspiring Fosses and LuPones. The film introduces audiences to the camp’s founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris), who tragically suffers a stroke mere days into the unseen documentarian’s production when her latest cohort gets a bit too ambitious with the theatrical lighting. In her absence, Joan dim-witted influencer son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes the helm of Camp AdirondACTS. He’s hopelessly adrift, but buoyed by the camp counsellors, including long-time BFFs Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon). Theatre camp just isn’t the same without Joan, though, so Amos and Rebecca-Diane decide to bring her onstage in spirit. AdirondACTs’ original production will therefore be the biographical musical Joan, Still in honour of their comatose patron. Unfortunately, though, they haven’t written a word or tune by the day the rehearsals begin.
No Role Too Small
Theater Camp eschews the talking heads/interview style that many mockumentaries favour. Instead, Gordon and Lieberman harness the fly-on-the-wall nature of observational cinema. This approach, driven largely by shaky handheld cameras, benefits the indie production. Beyond side-stepping budget concerns, which are further aided by the scrappy setting of the camp, the Wiseman-esque approach lets Theater Camp take advantage of its committed ensemble. It’s an immersive portrait of the machinery that makes the camp whirl, from every hand to each scrappy sprocket. The film has a great cast of characters, including the camp’s technical coordinator Glenn (Noah Galvin), dance coach Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), and costumer Gigi (Owen Thiele). There’s also the new addition of the extremely sketchy acting teacher Janet (Ayo Edebiri). She clearly doesn’t know a thing and could easily be a prison escapee—a scene-stealing performance with the most laughs per minute.
AdirondACTS also includes a gaggle of overly keen campers. The young chorus is very funny with its dedication to over-acting: every kid has Tonys in their eyes, but Gordon and Lieberman handle the cast nicely. Particularly hilarious is Minari star Alan Kim as a fast-talking aspiring agent. He’s very funny, confident, and a natural on camera who relishes taking a small part and making it big. People gamely overact in Theater Camp without overdoing it.
As auditions yield to preparations and rehearsals, Amos and Rebecca-Diane find themselves in their own backstage drama. The task of honouring their mentor proves daunting. They struggle to write Joan’s ending, instead leaving the big number hanging. Underlying their writers’ block is the lingering tension of their friendship and their sense of worth as artists. Amos seems content to be a camper for life, while Rebecca-Diane with dreams of fame.
Wicked Inside Jokes
Platt, best known as for his Tony Award winning performance in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and its (unfairly) maligned film adaptation, has the most expansive role as the leader of the ensemble. His Amos is a born diva, but has an underlying vulnerability as he critiques his campers and fellow counsellors alike. As Amos knows with nearly two decades’ of theatre camp under his belt, few dreamers make the stage.
This film’s for those who have their head in the clouds, though. Theatre Camp reminds audiences that hidden talents are often in the wings. Galvin, for example, really shines as Glenn, who gives an early sense of his theatrical panache when demonstrating to his students how to move a spotlight with dramatic oomph. Galvin gets the film’s climactic number in the uproariously funny première of Joan, Still, but also makes the most of Theater Camp’s documentary trimmings. He brings a great sense of comedic timing to the film as Glenn moves around campus as if he’s Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.
One needs the right sense of humour to catch all the theatre references that fly by as the instructors and campers trade barbs quicker than actors in a Hamilton face-off. Viewers who know their show tunes, appreciate their EGOTs, and all that jazz will find the comedy infectious. Theater Camp unabashedly plays to the creatives, weirdos, and misfits. This is a movie of in-jokes and secret handshakes. Moviegoers who think Cats is a good night at the theatre, however, will likely miss the drollest jokes and find the humour shrill. But there’s something very refreshing to the film’s forthright specificity. It knows its audience, which only the best productions do. Give my regards to Broadway!