One thing Theater Camp could never be accused of is not knowing its audience.
Hatched by co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman and their fellow screenwriters Noah Galvin and Ben Platt out of a string of sketches, an unreleased web series and an improvised short, this larkish comedy is laser-targeted for a highly specific niche. Musical theater geeks, aspiring performers and eccentric drama educators will find countless sweet-spot insider jokes in a film that conveys the love of its creative team for the milieu at every turn. For the uninitiated, its charms are more likely to register in fits and starts.
The Bottom Line
No showstopper but enjoyable enough.
The project takes as its model the Christopher Guest improv comedy, which is both a blessing and a curse since the under-baked mockumentary frame is rickety and seems to be forgotten for large chunks at a time. Another drawback is the considerable overlap with two sharper, more disciplined films, Guest’s own Waiting for Guffman and Todd Graff’s Camp. But there are doubtless enough kids out there who know every word of “Defying Gravity” to help the Searchlight acquisition reach a youthful audience.
The bucolic upstate New York summer retreat of the title is AdirondACTS, a struggling endeavor run on a shoestring by its impassioned founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), who has a strobe-induced seizure during a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie and lands in a coma in the opening minutes. In the show-must-go-on tradition, that leaves company manager Rita (Caroline Aaron) in a predicament just as the year’s influx of theater kids is due to arrive.
Enter Joan’s son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a finance bro who has grown up immune to the theater bug. He promises to show the staff how to take a failing business “from lame to lit.” This proves challenging at first given that he barely speaks the same language as the camp’s staff, even less so its young attendees. Troy only really perks up when one of the budding performers sings Post Malone’s “Better Now” at auditions.
The faculty includes technical director Glenn (Galvin), costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele), dance teacher Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) and resident Rodgers and Hammerstein, Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon). That team of bickering co-dependents (“We share a soul,” says the airy-fairy Rebecca-Diane) composes an original show each season; they decide this year’s should be a bio-musical tribute to their beloved founder, called Joan, Still.
While Troy is fumbling around with cost-cutting measures, he learns that the bank has filed a notice of default and is weeks away from closing on the property. That news brings the more upscale neighboring enterprise, Camp Lakeside, circling like vultures, having eyed AdirondACTS’ land for years. Lakeside’s new corporate owners send predatory representative Caroline (Patti Harrison), who makes short work of gullible Troy. But a sentimental moment he catches in the Joan, Still rehearsals makes him an instant theater convert, pinning all his hopes on the musical to secure rescue investors and save his mother’s baby.
The creative team were weaned on youth theater and they clearly had a blast skewering the stereotypes that converge on drama camps each summer, whether it’s the exuberantly theatrical kids or the idiosyncratically affected teachers all firmly convinced of their own genius.
The life-or-death seriousness with which the staff take their mission yields funny moments like the irate reaction when one young performer is revealed to have used a tear stick to cry on cue (“Tear sticks are doping for actors!”) or another says he has nothing to draw from to channel a father (“Did Julianne Moore really have dementia?”)
This is the first feature for Gordon and Lieberman and there’s little evidence of a visual sense, even if the rough edges are part of the appeal. But perhaps due to the elements of improvisation, the comic timing is uneven and the material tends to be more often cute than uproarious.
The talented child actors, especially, would have benefited from more distinctive individual personalities. Only Minari discovery Alan Kim gets a well-defined type to play, as a wannabe agent already on the hustle.
Of the grownups, Platt’s Amos and Gordon’s Rebecca-Diane are the most fully developed characters, by design equal parts insufferable and endearing, while Tatro gets limited laughs out of the very straight dude-ish fish out of water, Troy. Harrison’s cool operator Caroline is a more interesting, edgy presence, partly because she’s one of the few not trying too hard. Comedy queens Sedaris and Aaron are underused.
Despite its inconsistency, the movie played like gangbusters at Sundance, as quirky comedies generally do, and it certainly has the heart to connect with its target audience. Even more so once they get to experience the raw brilliance of Joan, Still in its one-night-only performance, which fondly captures the quintessential theater-folk magic of making something out of nothing.
The show chronicles the camp founder’s path from her Eastern European roots through her rise on Wall Street and her wild nights snorting coke at Studio 54 to motherhood and the epiphany moment of opening AdirondACTS to provide sanctuary for misfit youngsters looking for a place to belong. Its songs have some of the silliest lyrics imaginable, but the kids in the cast (plus one surprise adult star) sing the hell out of them and somehow, they’re almost catchy. It’s simultaneously a mess and inspired.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Distribution: Searchlight Pictures
Production companies: PictureStart, Topic Studios, Gloria Sanchez Productions
Cast: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick, Kyndra Sanchez, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs, Quinn Titcomb
Directors: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman
Screenwriters: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt, based on their short film
Producers: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt
Executive producers: Alex Brown, Mary Bundy, Shayne Fiske Goldner, Jimmy Tatro, Michael Bloom, Jennifer Semler, Jeff Valeri
Director of photography: Nate Hurtsellers
Production designers: Charlotte Royer, Jordan Janota
Costume designer: Michelle Li
Music: James McAlister, Mark Sonnenblick
Original songs: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt, Mark Sonnenblick
Editor: Jon Philpot
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Kristian Charbonier
1 hour 34 minutes
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