With the actors’ strike currently putting new interviews and red carpet premieres on hold, promotion for Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp has been fairly muted as of late.
For cinema non-frequenters though, the first and last they may have heard of it would’ve been last month when one of its leading stars, Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt, during a pre-strike interview on the film with Rolling Stone, managed to spectacularly fumble the bag when asked a question about him being a nepo baby. (Academy Award-nominated Legally Blonde film producer Marc Platt is his father.)
It was unfortunate, but in this case, I hope the cliché “any press is good press” rings true when the film drops in UK cinemas on 25 August. Theater Camp is genuinely funny, occasionally hilarious and deserves to be seen.
It’s effectively a 90-minute mockumentary about the inner workings of AdirondACTS, a shabby, failing New York-based theatrical summer school.
Its founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), who manages to keep it afloat by the skin of her teeth every year, has fallen into a coma after having a bright light-induced seizure while watching an amateur school production. (It’s “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County”, we’re told.)
It’s up to her vacant-headed crypto bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to manage proceedings in her absence and, along with the camp’s gloriously OTT and perfectly deluded teachers, pull together and put on the final summer production.
Real life best friends Platt and Gordon star as Amos Klobuchar and Rebbeca-Diane, the exuberant and ruthless co-directors of the production, which they’ve decided will be titled Joan, Still as a sort of morbid memoriam to the undead founder’s life.
As a histrionic double act, Platt and Gordon frequently pull focus. In a standout scene, they praise one student for her ability to cry on cue, but then come to the earth-shattering conclusion that she’s been “using”, i.e, rubbing her eyes with a tear stick.
“I’m not mad,” Platt’s Amos reprimands her. “I’m just furious.”
While Platt and Gordon are the nucleus of the film’s chaos, Theater Camp is nothing without its wider entourage of teachers, all of whom have their heads firmly in the clouds.
Abbott Elementary star Ayo Edebiri brings the laughs as Janet Walch, a new “teacher” who has lied on her resume to get the job, having never worked with children or in theatre before. “Stage combat. What is it?” she asks her students in one brilliant scene. It’s a rhetorical question, until it isn’t.
Zoolander’s Nathan Lee Graham is fabulous as the school’s lofty choreographer who is only really interested in having his moment to shine. Then there’s Platt’s fiancé Noah Galvin as Glenn Wintrop, who endures a classic character arc, going from the fumbling stagehand underdog to Joan, Still’s show-stopping star.
It’s essential viewing for anyone who found themselves immersed in the world of musical theatre when they were younger, finally bringing some representation for annoying, queer theatre kids.
The young actors are frequently the film’s true stars, whether that’s when they’re saying “yasss!” to each other via paper as they’re on “vocal rest”, or plucking up the courage to come out as straight.
Theater Camp isn’t without its faults, though. Because the jokes do come at such rip-roaring speed, the writers sometimes trip over themselves in their attempts to crack us up, and some of the quips do fall flat. Some of the very best laughs will also only be fully appreciated by those whose childhoods were laced with a hearty dose of theatrical trauma.
Plus, though the simple plot does work, it does leave quite a lot of story loose at the end. Any longer and the film would’ve felt bloated, but it sometimes does feel as though it would have worked better as a sitcom à la Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High.
Theater Camp isn’t groundbreaking comedy and it’s unlikely to get much buzz come awards’ season next year. But it’s endearing, feel-good cinema that leaves you feeling just a little lighter.