The subject of Theater Camp is ripe for comedy, but it feels painfully forced if it's not done right. Thankfully, this one more or less succeeds.

Sundance Film Review: Theater Camp


Theater Camp
Director: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman

 If someone had told me at this time last year that there would ever be a mockumentary about amateur dramatics that was as good as Waiting for Guffman, I would have said they were wrong. After seeing Theater Camp, I’d still say the same thing, though I’d add that it’s a mistake to dismiss a movie that draws on that kind of greatness for inspiration as being without value.

The titular Theater Camp is an upstate New York sleepaway called AdirondACTS, a place where aspiring young performers come to spend the summer under the stars and pursue their dream of becoming one under the tutelage of the wise and plucky founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). When Joan suffers an accident and slips into a coma just before summer, the task of running the camp falls to her estranged son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), an oafish, aspiring DJ and cryptocurrency tycoon. 

Troy is in over his head. Luckily, he has the dynamic duo of Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, Shiva Baby, Winning Time), who always write and direct the camp’s big original musical. Troy and his eccentric group of teachers must work together to make this the best summer ever and dodge the looming threat of bankruptcy and a competing camp that’s looking to put them out of business. 

The subject of Theater Camp is ripe for comedy, but it feels painfully forced if it’s not done right. For every bullseye, such as much of the first season of Glee, there’s a colossal misfire, such as every other episode of Glee. Directors Gordon and Lieberman are obviously Guffman fans, and their approach embraces that influence in their own style. Theater Camp is formulaic and  predictable, and it occasionally drifts a bit off course. It’s also solidly entertaining and had me laughing frequently. The musical numbers are a lot of fun, and the young cast of child performers get a chance to strut their stuff.

Platt, the Broadway star who fared so poorly playing a teenager in the dreadful film version of Dear Evan Hansen, redeems himself nicely here. A self-centered “aspiring performer working as an acting teacher” (never leave out the first part), Amos is nearly impossible to like yet easy enough to love by the end. Gordon is even better as Rebecca-Diane, the new-age drama guru/psychic and queen of acting exercises and warm-up techniques (“I was with Al Gore at the old cheese store and he brought his own bag from the ocean floor.”) Still, the kids made the movie for me, with Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick and Donavan Colon standing out among the cast.

While I wouldn’t stack put Theater Camp up against Guffman or School of Rock, it’s got just enough of the humor, energy and charm of those films to make it a movie I’ll watch more than once. It also brought back plenty of memories of my glory days bringing kids out of their shells as a former drama teacher and is sure to be a hit with musical theater fans. –Patrick Gibbs