Shot on film that lends it an oh-so-comforting grainy warmth, Theater Camp invokes all those summers spent at sleepaway camps, where memories were recorded on fuzzy disposable cameras, to be developed and reminisced over months later. A collaboration between friends and co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (alongside fellow screenwriters Ben Platt and Noah Galvin), this balmy, sweet mockumentary feels as though it was yanked from the combined collective consciousness belonging to Jewish, theater, and sleepaway camp kids (this author is writing from experience here). It encompasses all the batshit insanity and near-cultishness soaked in genuine love that marks the summer camp experience as one nobody could forget.
This particular camp is called AdirondACTS, a financially teetering passion project run by Joan (Amy Sedaris), who falls into a coma just before the summer session is supposed to begin. Her medical emergency leaves her fratty, clueless finance bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) at the helm of the camp. Luckily, the regular crew is there, too: an eccentric ensemble that includes underappreciated technical director Glenn (Galvin), delightfully expressive dance teacher Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), and the obsessive, inseparable theater and music teachers Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, who is brilliantly on point here). Surrounding them are their equally eccentric and vehemently accurate campers, counting amongst them Alan Kim (beloved from Minari), who plays an enterprising aspiring agent.
While Rebecca-Diane and Amos are the most fleshed-out characters, there is bountiful personality nearly everywhere you look, from Glenn insisting that “wanting to learn about stagecraft is an act of nobility” to a camper brandishing a whiteboard with “literally yas #vocalrest” written on it. The seriousness with which they all take themselves, combined with their absurd, particular personalities, lends the film more than a few great quips, many of which feel like a delightful punch in the face.
The challenge facing the AdirondACTS staff this year is to keep the camp afloat while also producing a tribute musical to Joan titled Joan, Still (written, naturally, by Rebecca-Diane and Amos). Troy also struggles to keep his hands on the camp as he falls for Caroline (Patti Harrison), the conniving finance representative of their corporate, rich-kid-camp neighbors at Camp Lakeside. Meanwhile, in the theater, Rebecca-Diane and Amos clash as the former keeps inexplicably disappearing from activities and missing rehearsals despite being responsible for creating Joan, Still‘s finale number.
Theater Camp undoubtedly reads differently depending on personal experience, but its quirkiness and affectionate humor shine through regardless. It is all incredibly charming and endearingly funny, making for a comedy that builds upon itself throughout its runtime. There is also a comradery to it that only adds to its warmth. It’s especially great in its final scenes, as we watch the campers (plus Glenn) perform their hearts out in the musical, which is really quite good (seriously, these kids are crazy talented), if ridiculous and silly. Joan, Still is even good enough to seemingly finally unlock a fondness for theater in Troy.
This might be a first-time feature for Gordon and Lieberman, but the film reflects their assuredness in what they wanted to create. They found their heart, dug into it, and unearthed success. For anyone who has lived within these niches at any point in their life, Theater Camp feels a bit like coming home. Besides, if nothing else, the film is a damn good time.