When their over-the-top leader and theater camp director is put into a coma after a strobe-light incident, the staff of Adirond-ACTS must come together to get their campers through the summer. Directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon and starring Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, and Jimmy Tatro, Theater Camp is a messy and unlikeable mockumentary that follows the misadventures of its staff and administration when the more interesting story is with the campers themselves.
Though an ensemble piece, the film focuses on Amos and Rebecca Diane, best friends and counselors at Adirond-ACTS. The two write and produce an original show every year and with the camp director, Joan, out of commission for the time being the two collaborate on a tribute show for her called Joan Still. Platt plays Amos as the intense, not afraid-to-be-insulting acting coach while Gordon’s Rebecca-Diane is the spiritual, hippy music teacher that is still very extreme.
Amos notices his partner’s waning concentration as the summer goes on which causes tension between the two. Running the business side of the camp is Troy Rubinsky (Jimmy Tatro), Joan’s son and an inspiring influencer. He’s poor with money and is willing to break child labor laws in order to keep the camp afloat. His storyline of connecting with his mother’s legacy and finding the value in Adirond-ACTS is one of Theater Camp’s most underdeveloped storylines and doesn’t hold any real emotional weight.
Noah Galvin is the film’s one bright light as Glenn, the under-appreciated stage manager and techie who’s secretly pining for the stage. He’s genuinely funny and plays into the mockumentary format. There’s a montage of him being pulled all around camp doing various tasks for his coworkers with little thanks that ends with him rolling down a hill for an extended amount of time before popping up at the bottom and enthusiastically running away. His drag performance at the film’s end proves Galvin’s talent as not only a musical theater performer, but a comedic force.
You can feel directors Lieberman and Gordon trying to channel the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer and Waiting for Guffman but they never cross the line into the absurd the way those films do. Theater Camp’s characters push into theater kid stereotypes, with nothing grounding Platt and Gordon’s leading performances.
Though Lieberman, Gordon, Platt, and Galvin are all credited with the script, large portions of the dialogue are improvised by the cast. You can tell that they think they are funny as a group, but there’s a reason most of us don’t make movies with our friends. We aren’t that funny to other people. Just being insufferable isn’t funny.
This movie already came out nearly 20 years ago in Camp. It starred Robin de Jesús and Anna Kendrick in her first film role. Stephen Sondheim even makes an appearance. While it’s not a mockumentary like Theater Camp, it does feel more truthful and endearing than this new iteration. Bought by Searchlight, this film will inevitably find its audience. However, whether it deserves to remains to be seen.