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Theater Camp Review: An Ode To Theater Kid Energy

  • Great ensemble cast of child actors
  • Perfectly captures the theater kid experience
  • Improvisational style can come across as unfocused

If you spent your high school career spreading unsubstantiated rumors that Mrs. Grifasi was going to let you do "Rent" this year because she "totally thinks we have the cast for it," you might find yourself feeling nostalgic — or possibly personally attacked — while watching "Theater Camp." Perhaps stronger in concept than in execution, "Theater Camp," which debuted at Sundance Film Festival, has moments of hyper-specific brilliance that perfectly capture the bizarrely insular world of the musical theater enthusiast, while also containing long stretches of improvised shenanigans that elicit a wry smile at the very least, if not full-on bursts of laughter.

For weird little theater kids everywhere, perpetually misunderstood in their day-to-day lives, summer offers a safe space of creativity and understanding, where they can allow their dramatic instincts to flourish surrounded by kindred spirits. That's the magic of the AdirondACTS theater camp, run enthusiastically by Joan (Amy Sedaris) — or at least it was, until its inspirational director falls into a coma, leaving the running of the camp to her wannabe influencer son Troy (Jimmy Tatro). 

There are a few problems here. Firstly, Troy does not have what one might consider a killer theatrical instinct, creating a disconnect between him, the campers, and the camp staff. But perhaps more importantly, Troy lacks any semblance of business acumen, and his decisions in addition to the camp's already shaky financial situation jeopardize its future. In this mockumentary-style comedy, Troy and his staff of overgrown theater kids will attempt to cobble together a great summer for their campers in honor of their beloved Joan. But in true homage to live theater, their productions (and, let's be honest, their lives in general) are mere inches from total collapse.

Summer camp classics

It's no secret that "Theater Camp" borrows liberally from the summer camp films that have come before it. The earnest misunderstood theater energy comes from "Camp," which was making tongue-in-cheek jokes about young actors doing productions of shows that are way too old for them with Anna Kendrick all the way back in 2002. Its idiosyncratic sense of humor has its roots in "Wet Hot American Summer," which is itself riffing on "Meatballs." Its best claim to originality is in blending the qualities of its two main inspirations: Where "Camp" focuses primarily on its ensemble cast of campers, "Theater Camp" rightfully recognizes that some of the most endearing sources of both comedy and pathos are the bizarre troupe of teachers that devote their summers to mounting amateur theatrical productions. 

There's a bittersweet quality to their relationships with one another, especially the co-dependent but emotionally fraught bond between acting teacher Amos (Ben Platt) and musical director Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon). The two are essentially welded to one another, neither able to strike out on their own, both settled into a routine of instructing young actors with the time and potential quickly dwindling from their own performing careers.

"Theater Camp" is at its best when it luxuriates in the extremely esoteric details that only someone who had lived the life of a theater kid would know. The fact that the tech director (played by Noah Galvin) is the most objectively talented member of the troupe but has been conditioned over the course of a lifetime in the theater to kowtow to the actors' egos is exquisite. It has perhaps the best payoff in the entire film. The personas of the various young actors are spot on, thanks to the writing and the talents of the preternaturally gifted ensemble of children. "Joan Still" in particular zeros in on the quirky eccentricities of an amateur theatrical production and makes them shine — Sondheim it may not be, but we've definitely seen worse shows make it to the Great White Way. The production also features the rarest of beasts: A musical theater number that is purposefully written to be terrible in the dress rehearsal but winds up somehow breathtaking within the different context of opening night.

The chaos of improv

Do all of the weird little subplots of "Theater Camp" resolve themselves or, for that matter, work particularly well? No, of course not. But that's just the cost of doing business when you're working from a largely improvised script: You throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. A surprising amount does, to its credit. From the withering contempt Amos displays towards a talented child actor with a burgeoning professional career to the increasingly bizarre efforts of Troy to keep the camp afloat, there are plenty of moments of understated humor throughout the film.

As is only fitting for a movie about amateur theater, "Theater Camp" is a finely-tuned ode to artistic chaos, a whirling dervish of drama that somehow manages to sort itself out by the end. It manages to balance its love for musical theater aficionados and rightfully mock them at every turn. It may feel a little unpolished and rough around the edges at times, primarily as a result of its improvisational style, but to be honest, that's part of its charm. Its merry band of melodramatic misfits, especially Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, have rarely been used to such great effect.

Theatrical release information for "Theater Camp" has yet to be announced.