2.5 out of 5 stars

Set in the world of a summer camp for drama geeks in the Adirondack Mountains, upstate New York, Theater Camp assumes a documentary feel akin to factual works like Jesus Camp (2006), as well as cult comedies like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (2000) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Based on a short film by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt (all of whom were no doubt theatre kids in their youth) it’s directed by Gordon and Lieberman and stars the whole crew as part of an ensemble cast. 

Its plot sees Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) as best friend who went to summer camp as part of the AdirondACTS organisation as kids, but who’ve since grown up to become teacher that produce their musicals alongside the roster of standards each year. Rebecca-Diane once had a crush on Amos before he came out as gay, so in their own words they now “share a soul”, or are codependent, as observed by new teacher Janet (Ayo Edebiri).

When AdirondACTS director Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma during a production of Bye Bye Birdie, her vlog bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes control and… ‘tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme’ (a reference I’m sure these kids would love)… the camp finds itself in competition with a rich kids’ alternative, on top of needing to stop the bank foreclosing and keep the show going.

Watching this film made me feel like a stranger at a party to which I was invited as a plus one, listening to everyone’s in-jokes. Occasionally something would make me laugh, but mostly I was nonplussed by it. I’m not sure that this is completely my fault since many of my favourite films have been about things of which I have limited knowledge or experience of. Still, I did feel like a Grinch, remaining unmoved by it all. I’m reminded of how Roger Ebert concluded his review of Scooby-Doo (2002), writing “the Internet was invented so that you can find someone else’s review of Scooby-Doo. Start surfing.”

My particular screening of Theater Camp was a sparsely attended mid-week matinee with subtitles, so it’s not representative at all, but from what I could hear I was the only one who laughed even occasionally. Maybe it’s an American thing.

To be fair, I did laugh at the occasional joke. Far and away the funniest character in the film is Ayo Edebiri’s grifting Janet, a local to the lakeside community who lies her way into a role as a “stage combat” veteran and has a good scene where she asks her new students what that subject is. Frustratingly little is done with her, just as how the most believable and endearing friendship in the film, between Tatro’s Troy and Galvin’s theatre tech/dancing savant Glenn, is marginalised in favour of the less original and likeable Platt/Gordon duo. 

Platt and Gordon are excellent actors, but their characters are off the shelf, a straight steal from Will & Grace (1998-2006; 2017-2020). The dynamic of ‘straight woman in codependent friendship with gay man on whom she once had romantic designs’ might have seemed fresh in the world of late 1990s sitcom, less so in 2023. It would probably have helped if the satire of Theater Camp was a little darker and more biting, but it keeps insisting that Amos and Rebecca-Diane are likeable protagonists, which… I’m sorry, but I didn’t find them so. They’re slightly pathetic and ugly people. 

In fact, Amos’s whole ‘I belong here’ arc was unintentionally funny to me when he comes across as passive-aggressive, controlling, and solipsistic. In one scene he and Rebecca-Diane essentially bully a little girl for using a “tear stick” to fake emotional reactions on stage. It’s somewhat funny, but the film doesn’t build on it and expects us ultimately to be laughing with rather than at our central couple. If it had been a touch crueller and made them available for our laughter, it might have worked better. 

Troy and Glenn’s budding friendship, in how the less confident man ends up making the other see the light, is more engaging but shunted aside. Conspicuously missing from the film are the actual kids to whom the survival of the camp is supposedly of vital importance; they seem like plot devices in what should really be their own movie. (One of them has a rare laugh-out-loud moment involving the epithet “cis-het bitch”.)

The story, meanwhile, is a raggedy mess. The ‘school movie’ tropes it’s playing with were old when Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1992) had Lauryn Hill lead an inner-city music class to regional glory with their urban gangsta flava. (However, at least Theater Camp doesn’t burden us with cliches like the overprotective mother and a teacher who gets down with the kids by trading “yo mama” jokes.) The plotting is lazy at best. Intertitles are used to paper over cracks in a story the film has neither the time nor inclination to fill, the technique barely justified by the mockumentary format. 

The conclusion to the bank foreclosure plot is a deus ex machina that’s supposed to be comedically audacious, like that episode of The Simpsons, “Das Bus”, which ends with the narrator telling us the characters were saved by “oh, let’s say… Moe.” Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here, I was indifferent to it since I wasn’t invested in the plot machinations anyway. Just once, for the sake of novelty, I’d like one of these plots to end with the tearful and soul-destroyed kids being chased from their sanctuary by rapacious bulldozers. Call me sick.

The mockumentary approach was a bad idea that should’ve been nixed in the planning stages. There’s no earthly reason why this needs to look like a documentary. This Is Spinal Tap was about the world of rock stars backstage, while Best in Show utilised talking heads and such. Theater Camp is a formulaic comedy about believing in yourself and fighting back against snooty rich kids. The shaky cam used to justify the conceit makes it frequently annoying visually, even nauseous; there are shots where the camera (if we’re to believe this is being made by actual documentarians) just wouldn’t be where it is. Why would two characters allow their backroom deals to be filmed for posterity?

There are likely lots of people out there who’ll appreciate Theatre Camp. They’ll be alumni of the places as it depicts, and recognise the eccentricities of their former peers and teachers. Good luck and God bless to those thespian souls, but I can’t say I’m of their persuasion.


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Cast & Crew

directors: Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman.
writers: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman & Ben Platt (based on the short film by Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman & Ben Platt).
starring: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman & Ben Platt.