“You guys are so talented. So unbelievable. This will break you. This will fully destroy you.”
Not exactly the type of words you expect to hear from the head of a theater camp said to a collection of young, eager pupils, but such is the way of creative existence at AdirondACTS Theater Camp where camp isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.
Whilst Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman‘s Christopher Guest-like mockumentary comedy is one that very much speaks to a specific mentality of attending such theatrically-inclined summer camps – the idea shouldn’t be lost on Australian audiences, but it’ll no doubt earn more of a knowing nod from American viewers – its oft-razor sharp script (a collaboration between Lieberman and cast members Gordon, Ben Platt and Noah Galvin) keeps it from ever solely being an “insiders only” comedy.
An affectionate, occasionally salty satire born from a talented quartet who are eerily familiar with its titular location – the film even includes home video footage of the real-life Gordon and Platt, friends since children, performing together as an additive to their character backgrounds – Theater Camp sets up its neatly bizarre concept when the camp’s beloved founder Joan (Amy Sedaris, in a riotous cameo) suffers a stroke and falls into a coma. She’s the backbone of AdirondACTS, and senior counsellor Amos (Platt, leaning a little too easily into his mix of talent and irritation) and his right-hand Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, always a welcome on-screen presence) will be damned if they don’t honour her with this year’s production.
Whilst Joan’s wannabe-financial bro of a son (Jimmy Tatro) is left to clutch at straws as he fumbles the monetary side of the camp, Amos, Rebecca-Diane, costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele), dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), and stage manager Glenn (Galvin) put their collective heads together to form a production of sorts, one that will honour their fallen Joan; the eventual decision is to stage the ambitious “Joan. Still.” in her name; and yes, the fact that she’s “still Joan” but she’s as still as she can be due to her condition is the emphasis of the joke.
Though it makes sense for Gordon and Lieberman’s film to focus on its entertaining ensemble of adult characters – which also includes a hilarious turn from Ayo Edibiri as Janet, a staff newcomer who silver-tongues her way to teaching stage combat, despite having no actual idea of what that entails – it’s a shame that for a movie about theater camp and what having such an outlet is like for the creative “outcasts” of the world, it doesn’t extend far to the children themselves. Yes, it’s obvious that a lot of the children on hand here are far more talented and socially-inclined than Amos and Rebecca-Diane could ever be – especially Amos – but Theater Camp can’t help but come off as little vanity project for those involved.
That being said, as much as Platt and Gordon’s stamp is over Theater Camp, it’s still a consistently funny effort with a nice bite to it that expresses a welcome self awareness pertaining to the ridiculousness and faux-seriousness of the camp temperament; the musical numbers of “Joan. Still.” are even impressively assembled, farcical as they are. Clueless the camp “intellects” may be, there’s an easy, supportive nature to the film and its characters.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Theater Camp is screening in Australian theatres from September 7th, 2023.
Theater Camp was originally reviewed as part of our Melbourne International Film Festival coverage.