Joan (Amy Sedaris) is the founder of a scrappy summer theatre camp located in the upstate New York Adirondack mountains. Cheekily named ‘AdirondACTS’ the camp seeks to give pint sized upcoming thespians the tools they need for a future in the acting world. As summer rolls around, Joan is scouting fresh talent while followed by a documentary crew when almost immediately Joan has a massive stroke and ends up in a coma.
But the show must go on!
Management of the camp is handed over to Joan’s ‘crypto-bro’ social media star son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro). Although keen, he has zero understanding of how to manage a business or how to deal with children. He’s able to brush off many responsibilities to the somewhat more reliable teaching staff. However, he discovers AdirondACTS has been in a financial sink hole for a while. With crippling debts to tackle, he attempts to both save and raise money however he can. He does this secretly to limit panic amongst the staff.
Unaware of the looming financial ruin, the teachers push on with the new crop of students. Theatre games, classes and various productions get underway for this camp of special kids. Meanwhile, former theatre kids turned teachers Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) plan for this year’s showcase. The co-dependent pair plan to honour Joan with a special original musical based on her life titled ‘Joan, Still’. That is, if the camp still exists by showtime!
Theater Camp (purposeful American spelt title) is written by Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Noah Galvin, and Ben Platt, based on a short film they made in 2020. I say “written” however the film’s dialogue is largely improvised, fitting with the general naturalised feel directors Gordon and Lieberman are going for. This film is a love letter to theatre and the escape it brings young stars of the future, itself being made by former theatre kids who never grew up.
Mockumentaries have become such well tread ground that there’s little in the way of novelty to them anymore. This is thanks to classics such as Christopher Guest’s ‘This is Spinal Tap’ all the way up to recent hits like Taika Waititi’s ‘What We Do in the Shadows’. The one-time quirk of filmmaking has become something of a legitimate style all of its own. Theater Camp understands this and doesn’t lean too heavy on backstory or reasoning for why these characters are being filmed. Instead, the audience feels more a fly on the wall witnessing all aspects of this camp’s day to day life which allows the film to get straight into its humour, very rewarding as it’s undoubtedly Theater Camp‘s strong suit.
The cast of characters are played by such legitimately funny people that Theater Camp is hilarious from start to finish. Most definitely, this is a movie for former theatre kids or those who still fully appreciate stage musicals and plays. As such, there are plenty of in-jokes and theatre-based parodies throughout. Much of the comedy does boil down to the inappropriateness of the teachers behaving in such a way in front of children in particular. But Theater Camp never takes itself seriously and is all the more fun for it.
The wonderfully eccentric cast of characters in this small camp are a joy to watch with the newly hired teacher Janet (Ayo Edebiri) who lied on her resume being a standout. As she makes things up as she goes along, it becomes clear that it’s the children of AdirondACTS who have their head’s screwed on more than any of the adults.
Unfortunately, this freeform improvised approach to scenes leaves little room for an actual story to develop. Theater Camp’s best character as far as plot is concerned would be Troy. He’s the only character who has any depth and goes through a satisfying arc. Over the course of the film, we watch him grow to care for the school and the children the camp helps. By comparison, the rest of the teachers are extremely self-centred, cruel and one note. They’re amusing but there’s nothing beyond the charisma of their respective actors, making them engaging to the narrative.
Despite a weak story stemming from an almost non-existent script, I really enjoyed Theater Camp. The movie is extremely funny often in an “I can’t believe they just said that” way. It features hilarious characters and is clearly a heartfelt tribute to the creative arts. It is consistently endearing watching children with a passion for theatre being given an outlet for that creativity.
I just wish more care had gone into expanding Theater Camp‘s plot from its short film origins into this ambitious feature length production.