REVIEW: Theater Camp (2023, dirs. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 93 mins

UK Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

WHO’S IN THEATER CAMP?

Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris, Alan Kim, Kyndra Sanchez, Alexander Bello, Luke Islam, Bailee Bonick, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs, Quinn Titcomb, Jack Sobolewski, Madisen Lora

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (directors, writers, producers), Noah Galvin and Ben Platt (writers, producers), Jessica Elbaum, Samie Kim Falvey, Erik Feig, Will Ferrell, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller and Maria Zuckerman (producers), James McAlister and Mark Sonnenblick (composers), Nate Hurtsellers (cinematographer), Jon Philpot (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The staff of a summer theatre camp find themselves dealing with plenty of difficulties…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THEATER CAMP?

At one point in our school lives, we all knew a theatre kid (and if you didn’t, you either were a theatre kid yourself, or you were homeschooled). You know who I’m talking about: that one kid whose love and passion for plays and musicals wasn’t just their whole personality, but also their whole world, and they made it known at every available opportunity – during Drama or Performing Arts lessons, most likely – when they weren’t, of course, fixating more on the annual school play than their actual studies.

As someone who actively partook in several Drama lessons and school productions as a teenager, I certainly knew quite a few theatre kids at my school. Most of them were awesome to be around, and I’m even still in contact with some of them to this day, but then there was the rare exception whose abrasive and theatrical nature was much more obnoxious than it was endearing, and that got in the way of actually enjoying the play/musical itself because they just wouldn’t stop letting everyone know about them.

I like to imagine it is that kind of theatre kid who would be purchasing an opening night ticket for Theater Camp (with “theatre” spelled the American way), thinking that it’s a timely celebration of their passion that nobody else seems to understand – we, in fact, do understand it; you’re just being annoying about it – only to find that it’s a light satire of the theatre world that cuts a deep hole into those sorts of behaviours that the rest of the world can’t seem to fully tolerate.

Based on the short film of the same name by this film’s co-director Nick Lieberman, Theater Camp is told as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the activities of fictional theatre camp AdirondACTS, which every summer hosts several young performers as they rehearse and workshop their way to stage success. After the camp’s founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her clueless business vlogger son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) steps in to keep the camp afloat, even though it’s drowning in debt and inevitable foreclosure.

But that’s not the only piece of drama going down at a place where drama is literally everything: teachers and best friends Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, the film’s other co-director) are struggling to come up with a commemorative original production for Joan, production manager Glenn (Noah Galvin) seeks his big stage calling, and new instructor Janet (Ayo Edebiri) has absolutely no idea what she’s doing, despite (falsely) claiming to be a theatre expert on her CV.

Narratively speaking, Theater Camp has a very loose, almost vignette-like structure, made up of several different scenes that only barely connect with one another, with several of our main characters dropping in and out of the main focus. Admittedly, it made the film a bit difficult to follow at first, because it’s not immediately clear who we’re meant to be following through this whole journey, since it keeps cutting to and from other plot threads already in progress. In fact, it was even giving me some unwanted flashbacks to last year’s awful Netflix comedy The Bubble, which had a very similar lack of solid foundation and a sketch comedy-esque feel to it, not to mention a whole lot of performers with arcs that often get lost in the mix.

The core difference between both films, however, is that Theater Camp is actually funny, and the satire hits harder because you actually believe that these extravagant and flamboyant personalities could actually exist in the real world. The script, which directors Gordon and Lieberman also co-wrote alongside Gordon’s co-stars Noah Galvin and Ben Platt, enjoys poking light fun at the pretensions and self-absorptions of people within the theatre industry, especially the younger types who don’t entirely know how to reign in their own theatricality just yet, which results in a number of very amusing set-pieces where those from outside this theatrical bubble have no idea how to react to all the craziness.

The performers, from Gordon to Platt to Edebiri to even young Minari breakout Alan Kim as a wannabe agent – are all neatly in tune to the hyperactive comedic tone that the script and direction are leading them towards. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s completely solid in its ideas and styles, as it tends to drop one concept in favour of another (after a while, you actually forget that it’s supposed to be a “documentary”, until some on-screen text remind us of such). That being said, there is clearly heart put into it, by people who certainly seem to know everything there is to know about theatre and its many eccentric personalities.

It just about works, though your overall tolerance for it might depend on how you may have responded to theatre kids from your own past. If you could put up with them, then you might stand a chance; if not, have I got some bad news for you…

SO, TO SUM UP…

Theater Camp works fine enough as a humorous, though never fully solid, satire of the theatre world and its many extravagant, sometimes unbearably so, personalities.

Theater Camp is showing in cinemas from Friday 25th August 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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