Originally conceived as a short film by screenwriters Noah Galvin (The Good Doctor), Molly Gordon (Booksmart/Shiva Baby), Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect) and directed in its long-form by first-time feature filmmakers Gordon and Lieberman, the film Theater Camp speaks to a specific group of people and those folks will *roar* with laughter at the repeated direct hits this docu-comedy delivers. Don’t mistake this as meaning that those who would descend upon a woodland estate for a few weeks each summer, taking classes in music, costuming, performance, and tech, will take offense at the characterizations; rather, Theater Camp is a love letter to that specific experience, in all its bewildering narcissism, evoking one’s love of performance whether as someone on the stage or ensuring it all doesn’t fall apart from behind the scenes. If you missed Theater Camp in theaters, you can now opt to enjoy one of 2023’s best comedies either by streaming on Hulu or purchasing a digital edition with over 30 minutes of bonus materials.
Among the Adirondack Mountains, theater enthusiast Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) is preparing to welcome the next summer session’s students of her performance camp, Adirond ACTS, when tragedy strikes and her less-than-knowledgeable son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) must step in to run things. This, of course, ruffles the feathers of department heads Amos Klobuchar (Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), Clive DeWitt (Nathan Lee Graham), and Gigi Charbonier (Owen Thiele) as Troy’s influencer perspective and total lack of passion toward the arts makes him feel like a poser at best, an ineffectual idiot at worst; yet the show must go on and they try to do their best. But as the session goes on and several secrets find their way out, the drama will not be contained to the stage.
Though the directorial approach of Theater Camp is that of a docu-comedy in the vein of Modern Family (2009 – 2020) or Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015) minus the repeated use of confessionals, the film is going to feel like an actual documentary to anyone who has spent time in this environment. Myself, I would take performance classes at regular summer camps I would attend, such as at a North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) affiliated camp in Warwick, New York called Kutz I attended one summer (which was coincidentally also the location for the film), but it was a two-week summer camp a year or two later that would eventually change my life and put me on the path to where I am now. This sounds like the setup to a tale of how performance shaped my life, when the truth of it is that my life is not so much where it is because of the week-long improv course, but because the folks I met there through my roommate who (upon my parents’ divorce) were pretty instrumental in my moving to NC which is more or less how I got to UNC at Asheville, met EoM Editor Crystal Davidson (where we became friends), and everything thereafter. Those folks I met in Brevard all attended Northwest School of the Arts (NWSA), a magnet school for the performing arts, and each of them (and the friends they introduced me to when I moved here to spend my senior year of high school at NWSA) specialized in writing, acting, singing, dance, tech, costuming, or even a combination. They are remarkable individuals who, whether they continue to be associated with the performing arts or not, have immeasurable talent that I will forever admire. This all matters within the scope of this home release review of Theater Camp as one needs to know this community in order to create an effective tale within it that doesn’t just lean on tropes or caricature for laughs or tension. These four writers (Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, and Platt) clearly drew from their own experiences and put it all in the script, making this semi-former theater kid recognize his friends and former classmates in the characters. Therefore, rather than feeling like a 90-minute one-note joke making fun of theater kids, Theater Camp possesses the energy of a slap-dash sketch enacted during summer camp, riddled with references and in-jokes that lovingly poke at the frustrations and familiarity of learning and practicing the craft you love.
To the screenwriters’ credit, even the inclusions of Troy as the outsider learning to understand and Patti Harrison’s (The Lost City) business developer, Caroline Krauss, as the interloper, which are summer camp movie tropes (though there is an argument for the interloper extending to sports (Ski School) and other genres), don’t feel forced or tacked on. Rather, they serve as setup for several jokes with several surprising punchlines. Sure, maybe they’re funnier if you are connected to the performing arts, but, in large part to these two cast members and all the rest, no joke comes off as an insult where there’s collateral damage to attend to thanks to the honesty we feel from the delivery. Plus, even when things get super ridiculous with the crown event of the summer (the original play created and run by Amos and Rebecca-Diane), the act of creation remains a lofty, cherished idea, executed by inmates who happily run the asylum. Another boon in the cap, there’s some nice subtext to the film regarding the capitalist system that provides its financial support being identified as a necessary evil that artists *must* contend with and learn to co-exist with, all while ensuring that they don’t get gobbled up by it. This is more than just a source of tension for Troy to deal with, but for the other characters as the idea of what it means to be a working performer versus a teacher is central to the Amos and Rebecca-Diane dynamic. Gordon and Lieberman do a great job as first-time directors ensuring that the downbeats don’t overturn the laughs, that the humor is built on truth not joke-seeking, and that all the main characters have a real arc to grow invested in.
Whether you come to Theater Camp as an active member of a troupe, a recovering cast or crew member, or a normie, the bonus features do a wonderful job at extending the fun of the film post-watch. There’s the seven-minute “Side By Side By Side: A Theater Camp Chat” that features the four screenwriters/two directors, Tatro, and Thiele discussing what theater camp meant to them, how their experiences informed the creation process, and more, all while intercutting scenes from the finished film. The deleted and extended scenes, totaling nearly nine minutes, are gathered all together into two respective sections (not individual within their categories), offer the expected material that either was taken out due to repetition, shortened to maintain pacing, or any number of other elements. The five Talent Showcase Reels are just that, sizzle reels for the characters of Rebecca-Diane, Amos, and Troy, as well as “Songwriting with Rebecca-Diane & Amos” and “Troy meets with Rebecca-Diane & Amos.” These are a bit like the deleted and extended sequences, just focused on these three characters and their relationships. Of course, for those who have just as much fun watching the straight performances as the mistakes, there is a three+ minute gag reel to enjoy!
It’s very clear from the various montages featuring prepubescent, adolescent, and generally young photos of the cast that those involved are approaching the entirety of Theater Camp from a personal and well-meaning place. Thankfully, this comes across from start to finish, feeling very much like the kind of “I can pick on this thing because I love it and you can’t because you don’t” project that spread more warmth than any comedy seeking to degrade the subjects for laughs. Because of this, all the laughs and the tears that come not only feel earnest, but earned. So if you’re looking for a great night with a film that’ll feel like a warm hug, stream it now.
Theater Camp Special Features:
- Side By Side By Side: A Theater Camp Chat (7:18)
- Deleted Scenes (4:45)
- Extended Scenes (4:05)
- Five (5) Talent Showcase Reels (16:52)
- Outtakes (3:36)
Available on Hulu and digital September 14th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Searchlight Pictures Theater Camp website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.