For all the grand gestures of musical theater, there’s an odd flatness to Theater Camp, a half-hearted and lackluster comedy from a group of Hollywood friends set at a summer performing arts community. There’s the inherited, well-worn genre of the mockumentary, as well as the familiar satirical targets of overzealous and/or pretentious theater types. But the real remove comes from a script that must’ve seemed much funnier on paper than in practice.
The 94-minute film “literally came out of us just wanting to make something with our friends,” said Molly Gordon, co-director along with her boyfriend Nick Lieberman, after the film’s overhyped Sundance standing ovation. That’s pretty accurate to how it feels to watch Theater Camp – secondhand comedy, as if sitting in on a friend group’s exchange of inside jokes you’re not privy to, with unoriginal bits that probably kill among their audience but fizzle on screen.
Theater Camp, written by Gordon, Lieberman and their friends/former Evan Hansens/engaged couple Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, expands upon the group’s 2020 short of the same name. Like the original, it stars Platt and Gordon as daffily over-serious theater camp instructors captured by an unseen documentary crew, this time brought to a bespoke upstate musical arts camp called AdirondACTS. The lakeside community is in turmoil after its cash-strapped matriarch Joan (Amy Sedaris) slips into a strobe-light induced coma at a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie; her vlogger son Troy (YouTube star Jimmy Tatro), an overdrawn caricature of a social media hypeman, steps in to “en-troy-preneur” the place with zero knowledge of musical theater. (One of the film’s better bits is the camp’s consistent invocation of Joan as a beloved departed spirit when she’s still alive).
The plot loosely orbits around codependent best friends Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane’s (Gordon) splintering relationship as they compose an original musical about Joan’s legacy (the film’s best decision, by far, is to show us several minutes of the completed Joan, Still) and Troy’s airheaded attempts to keep the place afloat. There’s a brief side plot involving the ruthless, deadpan board member of the neighboring camp (played by the always funny Patti Harrison) who sees an opportunity for expansion, and the general extra-ness of the camp’s many personalities, including dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) and biting costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele). Galvin is the standout of the adult cast, imbuing a spotlight-yearning “third-generation stage manager” with anxious heart that has rewarding payoff in the film’s genuinely enjoyable, sentimental musical finale. (Ayo Edebiri, playing to awkward type, also steals the spotlight in a handful of scenes as a completely under-qualified local hired to cut costs.)
The film-makers appear to have a skewed sense of what would make their film – a promising premise always ripe for parody – enjoyable. The most glaring example is the format; the genre of the mockumentary is already overdone, and Theater Camp halfway commits to it in the least helpful way – the camera is shaky, the edit distractingly jittery and the shots unnecessarily finagled through blinds or door cracks. There’s no fourth-wall breaking or talking heads, which usually provide the zings for this type of setup. The visual language is generally chaotic and at times incoherent, but not in a way that underscores the playful cacophony of a summer camp. The mismatched aesthetic is further muddled by the film’s desaturated color palette for a grainy, muted texture – a choice that undermines rather than amplifies the excess of the characters and the general heightened intensity of a musical theater camp for very enthusiastic kids. (For a mockumentary that does elevate the campiness of youth theater and is actually funny, see: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.)
And despite all the star power, I wished the film would focus not on the typically self-obsessed adults – I enjoy Gordon as a performer, but there’s nothing new in her parody of a seance-y, “energy-healing” white woman – but on the numerous talented youth actors seemingly thrilled to be there and all fun to watch. Theater Camp does, at least, reward us at the end with the kids’ performance of Joan, Still, which has all the warm, earnest charm the previous 80 minutes lacked. Easily the best punchline of Theater Camp is that the much-beleaguered, obviously tasteless production of Joan, Still is actually good, in the ridiculous, bad but deeply committed way. It’s not enough to make up for the film around it, but a good reminder of the intense belonging theater camp can evoke, and what a self-aware film about it could’ve been.