"Theater Camp" Source: Searchlight Pictures

Review: 'Theater Camp' Shifts the Spotlight With a Satire of the Summer Stage Scene

Matthew Creith READ TIME: 3 MIN.

"Tear Sticks are doping for actors!"

For a kid at a theater camp, or really any type of children's theater class, the experience is monumental for finding your tribe. Discovering new talents and making friends with others that share your passions is something we all strive for in this life. But attending a summer camp devoted solely to the art of theater where children and teenagers can learn and practice various aspects of theater performance and production is a worthwhile endeavor, because at theater camp, folks can develop their creativity, self-expression, confidence, and teamwork skills. Learning directly from professionals and working together with fellow campers to create a final performance to showcase for an audience is the icing on the cake.

Leave it to directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman to take those experiences and perfectly mock them in their new film aptly titled "Theater Camp." Based on the 2020 short film of the same name, it became a runaway hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January and played to a cheering audience at South by Southwest. An ensemble cast that includes Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Ayo Edebiri, and Amy Sedaris makes this one of the funniest fly-on-the-wall films as of late.

Ben Platt and Molly Gordon star in "Theater Camp," portraying Amos and Rebecca-Diane, experienced teachers at a theater camp for children in upstate New York. The movie is shot in a mockumentary style, reminiscent of Christopher Guest's 1996 comedy "Waiting for Guffman," but without the characters speaking directly to the camera. At the beginning of the season, the camp receives bad news as Joan (Sedaris), the longtime owner, falls into a coma, and her immature son (Tatro) takes over. This change in leadership puts Amos and Rebecca-Diane at odds with the new owner, who is more interested in partying than running the camp. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff tries to adapt to the changes implemented by the new owner. The movie follows various stages of the AdirondACTS camp, including auditions, classes, costuming, set design, rehearsals, tech week, and the highly-anticipated opening night.

"Theater Camp" is a witty satire that pokes fun at the dynamics between teachers and campers in a summer season setting. The movie is clearly personal for Gordon and Platt, who grew up in community theater together and contributed to the screenplay alongside Galvin and Lieberman. It will particularly resonate with anyone who has ever attended theater camp, known someone who did plays in school, or just so happens to have an obsession with Stephen Sondheim and musical theater.

The film's strength lies in its ability to humorously highlight the realistic tropes of this niche setting without ultimately making fun of the children involved. The jokes land well, and often give a glimpse into the psyche of someone who would dedicate their life to performing in front of an audience and struggle to find meaning in their work. Noah Galvin, in particular, steals the show as a wannabe dancer relegated to technical directing, a job he detests but that gives him an adjacent feeling to being part of the action.

Chaos reigns supreme when the camp experiences financial problems that create a storyline where a rival camp has AdirondACTS in its crosshairs. Many of these sequences are met with a groan rather than the laughs the movie is striving for, and distract from the sarcastic tone introduced in the beginning. The film excels when it is focused on the stages of the camp, and not so much when it centers on the buffoonery around leadership changes from within.

However, "Theater Camp" bookends its story with a tumultuous opening night that sees the true juxtaposition of parody and respect implemented. While the movie might be a humorous look at the dramatic arts, it soars when the premise becomes more personal for all involved. Amos and Rebecca-Diane are confident characters with possibly something to hide. Yet, they are respected for their veteran status by over-eager children who have attended camp every summer. Their not-so-subtle jabs, pop culture references, and various interactions with these kids elevate the movie to a respectable degree, especially when everyone seems to take their place in camp a little too seriously.

It makes for great fodder for moviegoing audiences, who have given "Theater Camp" a well-deserved standing ovation.

"Theater Camp" opens in theaters July 14.

by Matthew Creith

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