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Movie Analysis: ‘Theater Camp’ Blends Mockumentary and Musical Drama

by Joshua Brown
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'Theater Camp' Review

Satirizing sleepaway theater camps would rank alongside social-media influencers and Def Leppard tribute bands in the easy targets for satire.

“Theater Camp,” a fresh comedy by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, boldly plunges into the mockumentary genre in a way that would make Christopher Guest proud. Gordon and Lieberman’s film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, often mirrors the spirit of classics like “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” sometimes to its benefit, and other times not so much.

However, their approach is a significantly more sincere, affectionate caricature, crafted by a group of friends who clearly have a deep love for musical theater. Gordon and Lieberman collaborated on the script with Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, expanding their initial 18-minute short from 2020. The outcome straddles the line between a light parody and a gentle-hearted comedy. “Theater Camp” unquestionably nails the musical aspect.

AdirondACTS, an upstate New York camp, has been maintained for years by its founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris), who was meant to be the primary subject of a documentary about the camp. However, she falls into a coma due to strobe lights in a middle school production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a humorous, yet devastating moment for the film. Removing Amy Sedaris from a mockumentary that could have revolved around her is akin to taking Fred Astaire off in the opening scene. It’s a move that’s simply unacceptable. Instead, Joan’s son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), steps in to run the camp. He’s everything they feared: a finance bro who uses social media and has always avoided his mother’s camp due to his self-proclaimed “cool activities.”

Despite the initial shock, the camp staff, including Amos (Platt), the drama head, and his close collaborator Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), push forward with the summer’s programs. The activities include “The Crucible Jr.,” an immersive “Cats” performance, and their original piece, “Joan, Still.”

As life in the camp progresses amidst foreclosure threats and a rival camp vying for dominance, inside jokes fill the air. Amos ambitiously promises the child cast of “Joan, Still” that the play will be their ultimate challenge.

While these aspects are ingenious, they’re also somewhat predictable, causing the humor to fall a bit flat. The film, marking Gordon and Lieberman’s directorial debut, navigates a large ensemble cast who are deeply familiar with their roles. Standouts include “The Bear” star Ayo Edebiri, playing a local hire who falsely claimed her qualifications; her scenes bring a vibrant unpredictability.

Even if “Theater Camp” has a rocky start, “Joan, Still” culminates in a remarkably fantastic climax. By this point, Tatro has transformed his simplistic character into a lovable ally. The camp’s talented young performers, who were mostly in the background until now, claim the spotlight. “Theater Camp” might have fared better with a “Meatballs”-like framework, focusing on the dynamics between a camper and a counselor. Nevertheless, it does know how to entertain. With songs penned by the screenwriters and Mark Sonnenblick, “Theater Camp” ultimately achieves a harmonious balance between satire and authenticity.

“Theater Camp,” distributed by Searchlight Pictures, is rated PG-13 by the MPA for “for some strong language and suggestive/drug references.” The running time is 93 minutes. It earns two and a half stars out of four.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about ‘Theater Camp’ Review

What is “Theater Camp” about?

“Theater Camp” is a comedy mockumentary film that follows the story of a sleepaway theater camp called AdirondACTS in upstate New York. It explores the camp’s challenges, inside jokes, and the efforts to keep it running amidst foreclosure threats and competition from a rival camp.

Who are the main characters in “Theater Camp”?

The main characters in “Theater Camp” include Joan, the founder of AdirondACTS; Troy, Joan’s son who takes over running the camp; Amos, the head of drama; Rebecca-Diane, a close friend and collaborator of Amos; and various camp staff members and young performers.

Is “Theater Camp” a musical?

Yes, “Theater Camp” combines elements of musical theater. The film showcases various musical performances, including renditions of plays like “The Crucible Jr.,” an immersive “Cats” performance, and the original piece, “Joan, Still.” The songs in the film are written by the screenwriters and Mark Sonnenblick.

How does “Theater Camp” balance satire and authenticity?

“Theater Camp” strikes a balance between satire and authenticity by lovingly lampooning the world of sleepaway theater camps while maintaining a sincere and affectionate portrayal of musical theater. It pays homage to classic mockumentaries like “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman” while infusing its own charm and humor.

What is the rating and runtime of “Theater Camp”?

“Theater Camp” is rated PG-13 by the MPA (Motion Picture Association) for “some strong language and suggestive/drug references.” The film has a runtime of 93 minutes.

What is the directorial debut of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman?

“Theater Camp” marks the directorial debut of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman. They co-wrote the script alongside Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, expanding their original 18-minute short from 2020.

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