'Theater Camp' — a flawed yet fun film

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday July 11, 2023
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Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in 'Theater Camp' (photo: Searchlight Pictures)
Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in 'Theater Camp' (photo: Searchlight Pictures)

For many queer students, past and present, theater was a refuge. Not only could you find other LGBTQ people involved, but it served as a hospitable place for bohemians, nonconformists, and free spirits, people open to queer artistry. Theater allowed queer kids to be themselves and find their confidence, as well as encouraging creativity in an often wonderful, insane oasis.

Theater's gift is that it welcomes all, one of the virtues being celebrated in the new film "Theater Camp," (Searchlight Pictures) which might make Drama Club cool in the same way "Glee" reimagined and revitalized chorus/choir.

Summer camp in general could be a nightmare scenario for many teens, but this movie goes a long way in exorcising some of those demons. Frameline audiences went wild at its debut two weeks ago as the festival's centerpiece narrative. While not flawless, "Theater Camp" might have the makings of a breakthrough summer smash if viewers can tolerate its in-house eccentricities and references.

The movie is a feature-length version of a 2020 short of the same name that went viral. It takes place at a three-week ramshackle summer camp called AdirondACTS in upstate New York, a training ground for future performers. The founder, Joan (the always incredible Amy Sedaris) has a seizure during a youth production of "Bye, Bye Birdie" caused by strobe lights, landing her comatose in a hospital. Her "crypto-bro" business vlogger dimwit son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) must run the camp in her absence, which he soon realizes is facing financial ruin, weeks away from a bank foreclosure.

The nearby rival and more expensive snazzy Lakeside camp, represented by its conniving hedge fund business manager (Patti Harrison), is ready to buy it at the first opportunity. Troy, who has no stage experience, is forced to ally with the theater aspiring teachers to mount a blockbuster show that might financially save the camp.

Jimmy Tatro and Ayo Edebiri in in 'Theater Camp' (photo: Searchlight Pictures)  

Plucky kids
The principal teachers and de facto leaders are the jerky Amos (Ben Platt), "a performer who is a full-time acting teacher" ("a little more stepfather," he advises) and occasionally vicious Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, "Shiva Baby") on music theory (furiously denouncing one camper using a "tear stick" to fake-cry an emotional scene), who also conducts séances.

They are co-dependent best friends and Juilliard failures with massive egos who can be toxic to each other. Every summer they write an original finale show. This year's production is a musical "Joan, Still," on the life story of the camp's comatose founder.

Other teachers include new hire Janet (Ayo Edebiri, "Bottoms") who, having lied on her resume, knows nothing about theater; biting costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele); imperious dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham); and overworked/underappreciated stage manager technical director Glenn (Noah Galvin, "Booksmart,") giving the film's standout performance.

As competent as the adult actors are (especially Gordon, but the periodically annoying Platt making some progress in atoning for last year's "Dear Evan Hansen" debacle), it's the child stars playing the precocious, plucky kid campers who shine brightest, especially Alan Kim ("Minari") as a bossy wannabe agent and another geeky teen nervously trying to come out as straight to his two gay dads. Every pint-sized actor gets one scene to excel.

Gordon and Mark Lieberman directed and share co-writing credits with Platt and Galvin (real life fiancés), all childhood friends and former theater campers, who collaboratively draw on their vast thespian expertise and wisdom. It's a thin script (there are some instantly quotable lines: "Only 3% of people make it. The rest end up in a mental facility or on a gogo box in Hell's Kitchen." "Tear sticks are the doping of theater.") though heavy on improvisation, one of the movie's strengths.

Based on the description, the film's principal inspiration is Christopher Guest's mockumentary "Waiting for Guffman," using its cinema verité style to imitate a documentary, gently savage drama stereotypes and poke fun at the weirdos and zany characters endemic to this premise. It wisely avoids the fourth-wall breaking or talking heads typical of this genre's set-up.

The environment is chaotic, even incoherent, but captures the playfulness, excesses, and heightened enthusiasm of this whole enterprise. Honestly, of the 100 catty jokes and gags, only a few land as sure-fire winners, but redemption oddly comes via the silly songs of "Joan, Still" (a clever nod to the 2014 movie "Still, Alice") with their witty sometimes raunchy lyrics and catchy tunes, culminating in a finale that's surprisingly heartfelt.

The film's main drawback is its evocations of endless theatrical references, whether it be "Sweeney Todd," Patti Lupone, or Throat Coat lozenges, often embedded in double-entendre jokes. If you're familiar with the allusions, you can laugh along with the cast. However, those unfamiliar with the "lingo" might be cast adrift and bewildered.

Because the plot and cast focuses on misfits, the ones who don't square with the mainstream, as well as the sacrifices needed to succeed at any career, that's a wider net which might be more relatable to audiences.

The screenplay is primarily an underdog story about kooky characters for which everyone can root. It will be fascinating to see whether the film, with both its gay sensibility and Jewish bent (i.e. past original show: "A Hanukah Divorce Story"), will hit the jackpot at the cineplex.

All the hit-or-miss fluffy fun lays the seeds for possible future cult status.
"Theater Camp" is camp theater with a winning collaborative spirit and quirky humor featuring a cast that's having a blast. What more could viewers ask from summer entertainment?


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