We have experienced theatrics being mocked in mockumentary fashion before with Christopher Guests Waiting for Guffman, among many other subcultures. Molly Gordon and co-writer and co-director Nick Lieberman show signs of holding Guest’s humor and sensibilities, even when some of the material and humor show signs of strain. While the gifted duo hold comedic potential with an amusing cast of farcical characters, each with their own quirkiness and peculiar traits. The hilarity in the film is certainly contagious as it targets bloated egos for fodder, but eventually the film falls flat and is left with a very paint-by-numbers finale that loses its hilarity and potential character depth. Theater Camp certainly has the legs to generate the cult status of Waiting for Guffman, but it will always feel like a pale imitation of Christopher Guest.
The 94-minute comedy is based on the 2020 short film of the same title, which was also co-written and co-directed by Gordon and Lieberman. The film also stars Gordon and co-writer Ben Platt, who reprise their roles from the short as passionate theater camp instructors aiming to launch a new annual season of theater camp called Adirond ACTS that is captured by an unseen documentary crew. The camp is located in a rural community on a lake, and events change for the community after the matron Joan (Amy Sedaris) ends up suffering a coma from strobe lights during a fundraising stage play.
As she’s in a coma, it’s revealed that the camp is running low on funds and payments are way behind schedule to the bank, which leads to her crytpo-vlogger son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) attempting to take over the business side of the theater despite not having any knowledge of musical theater. This is just an opportunity for him to promote himself more on social media to promote his own brand of entrepreneurship, which he calls “en-troy-pruner”. Of course, it doesn’t take long for his incompetence to run the camp to the ground, and within a week, the board member (A hilarious Patti Harison) of the multi-million-dollar neighboring camp across the lake flirts and tries to persuade Troy to sell the property.
What separates this camp from the others is that it is genuinely inclusive of the flamboyant misfits and outcasts, where they find their own community of support and belonging with their fellow theater peers. There is a funny bit where a kid struggles with being heterosexual (his fellow campers are disappointed after they catch him throwing a football). Meanwhile, lifelong friends and collaborators Rebecca-Diane Gordon and Amos Platt aim to put on a production of a musical that honors Joan. Meanwhile, there is a wide array of other characters, including the utility handyman Glenn (Noah Galvin), dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele), and new hire Janet (Ayo Edebiri), who uses the most bizarre methods when teaching stage acting.
While the characters and some of the humor shine, the overdone mockumentary, no-frills approach doesn’t add much to the story other than feeling gimmicky. At least in Guests films, there was more self-awareness, fourth-wall breaking, talking head interviews, and artistry in how it was shot. Here, the aesthetics are chaotic, jittery, and overly shaky, and the execution doesn’t hold motivation other than feeling like a hurried production trying to cram as much material into a day. There isn’t even a color palette to be found, just a grainy, desaturated texture that sure could have used color for the vibrant characters.
For all its shortcomings, Theater Camp still maintains enough belly laughs and charm through most of it. The cast is having a great time, and most of them are extremely funny. Even though the film is not as infectious as its influences, just about any theater brat will certainly find great joy in it.
Theater Camp is now playing in theaters