The sense of joy that emanates from nearly every frame of Theater Camp, a film that arrived like a burst of July sunshine in the January frost of this year’s Sundance, is as palpable as grease paint and every bit as sweet as bug juice.
THEATER CAMP ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Helmed by first-time feature directors Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon, this ebullient amalgam of Waiting for Guffman and Meatballs is a paean to both misfit summers and theater people—that gloriously self-unaware tribe who, to quote the film, “turn cardboard to gold.” Upcycling the “you must pay the rent” plot line from 18th century melodrama, the film tells the story of AdirondACTS, an upstate New York summer camp on the brink of foreclosure after Joan (Amy Sedaris), its beloved owner and spiritual leader falls into a coma while scouting talent at a high school musical. It’s “the first Bye Bye Birdie–related injury in the history of Passaic County” we are told in what is the first knee-slapper in a veritable onslaught of jokes from a film that refuses to stop being silly for longer than 30 seconds.
Joan’s son Troy (YouTuber turned American Vandal star Jimmy Tatro)—who spent his youthful summers crashing his scooter off stairwells rather than starring in his mother’s productions—takes over the camp, and his crypto-bro demeanor and lack of artistic bearing instantly rankles the camp’s true believers.
“He is the least creative person I have ever met,” says longtime acting instructor Amos, played with fearless aplomb by Tony-winner Ben Platt, “and I haven’t even talked to him yet.”
Amos’ penchant to wring every last ounce of drama out of any situation is aided and abetted by Rebecca-Diane, played with blissed-out sincerity by Gordon (who you may recognize from her role as the seemingly doomed Claire in the remarkable second season of The Bear). Amos and Rebecca-Diane — who are writing and staging Still Joan, a musical ode to the camp’s founder — are the codependent heart of AdrirondACTS and the film itself, and this summer they’ve
But it is overworked tech guru Glenn that keeps the place running. As Glenn, Noah Galvin gracefully purloins the movie. The Good Doctor actor—who co wrote the script with Platt, Gordon, and Lieberman—is Theater Camp’s secret sauce, playing the diva whose outsized skills are hidden behind the spotlight he controls.
Embracing rather than rebutting every imaginable trope surrounding the theatrically-inclined, Theater Camp is about as tender and forgiving as satire gets. The genuine affection it emits for its characters helps keep fresh what at times feels overly familiar. It plays like an inside joke for anyone who has ever acted in or attended a high school play—in other words, pretty much all of us.
“It’s not funny,” says Janet, a clueless counselor brilliantly played by The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, after two of her charges demonstrate a convincing bit of stage combat to some shocked camp visitors. “It’s art.”
Thanks to the sincerity of its intentions and cubic ton of jokes, Theater Camp manages to be both—the rare cinematic comedy that, turns what might have been mundane into something not just delightful, but absolutely necessary.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.