Real summer camp buffs have this saying: “10 for 2,” meaning they spend 10 months out of the year looking forward to the two they will spend at summer camp. For some people, summer camp is their true home, the one place they can really be themselves, a treat that makes the real world bearable. For the kids (and adults) of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s charming and hilarious “Theater Camp,” it’s also a place where they can hone their craft without the prying eyes of the decidedly non-theatrical in their lives.
Cleverly conceived of as a mockumentary, “Theater Camp” picks up as our unnamed (and unseen) filmmakers are just a day into production. Their plan: follow a summer at “AdirondACTS,” an upstate New York theater camp run by the beloved Joan (Amy Sedaris). Joan and her righthand gal Rita (Caroline Aaron) are scouting talent at a middle school, and it’s more important than ever that they bring in some major young stars, because the camp (as is so often the wont of cinematic summer camps) sure could use an infusion of cash, and what says big bucks more than “young, striving, potential Broadway stars”? Alas, a strobe effect utilized during a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” sends Joan into a coma, and the camp into even more fraught circumstances.
But, the show must go on, and soon AdirondACTS is in the hands of motley crew for what threatens to be its last summer, including Gordon, her co-writers Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, and Owen Thiele. Joan’s son, Troy (Tatro), does not fit in with these misfits, however; despite his work as a “business vlogger,” it’s clear he wouldn’t know entrepreneurial (or, as he calls it, “entroypreneurial”) acumen if it fell on his head. Tatro makes for a wonderful straight man, a dumb bunny who grows a heart (and maybe even a brain) as the film winds on and the stakes, like the constantly trilled notes from this talented musical crew, get ever higher.
The main event, though, is Gordon and Platt, cast here as long-time best pals who seem to love nothing more than creating together (Gordon and Platt are, as charming archival footage deployed throughout the film reminds us, also long-time best pals who seem to love nothing more than creating together). Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) are former campers turned teachers, and the primo gig at every AdirondACTS session is a spot in whichever original musical they’ve cooked up specifically for the campers to perform (our favorite previous entry, shown by way of posters and t-shirts throughout the film: “The Hanukkah Divorce”).
This time around, they’re dedicating their skills to a production all about Joan (called “Joan, Still”) that every child wants to be a part of. They, of course, have not even written the damn thing before announcing it to the young thespians, a great gag that eventually turns into the emotional center of the film’s finale.
But will they ever get a chance to perform it? Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, and Platt know their mockumentary tropes well — early comparisons to “Waiting for Guffman” without the bite are dead-on — but they also know what goes into making a summer camp movie, most of which hinge on a rivalry with a snazzy other camp. (This time around, that other camp is owned by an evil conglomerate that also wants to snap up AdirondACTS, what with its bad financial standing and great property.)
While the entire film is very amusing, the first half in particular is chock-a-block with jokes that don’t let up (everything from plans for a production of “Crucible Jr.” to an introduction to the “Fosse Kids” is funny, and the film makes off with a late-breaking gag about JFK that’s painfully, darkly hilarious). But there’s plenty of heart here, much of it livened up by a wonderful cast of young stars who play the plucky campers, including Bailee Bonick, Donovan Colan, Luke Islam, and “Minari” breakout Alan Kim. They’re credible as rising theater stars (and movie stars to boot), adding veracity to this already winning outing.
The mockumentary style lends itself well to the material, and is improved on by Gordon and Lieberman’s restraint (there are no confessional interviews, for instance; in a Q&A after the film’s premiere, Gordon said that keeping it verite was the aim, they imagined it functioning like “The War Room”) in a film that thrives on silly excess. The duo find plenty of humor in straight-faced intertitles that provide necessary information, and “lower thirds” that tell us subject names and occupations (Galvin isn’t just “Glenn,” but also a “third generation stage manager”). Being a theater geek isn’t required to enjoy “Theater Camp,” but it certainly can’t hurt. Mostly, though, this is just funny and smart and sweet stuff, a crowdpleaser for the misfit in all of us.
One of few nitpicks: not everyone in this very talented cast is allowed as much room to shine as we might like (“The Bear” breakout Edebiri for one, delightful comedian Patti Harrison for another). But that’s a minor quibble — what a treat to be able to say, “oh, the only real problem was I wanted more of it” — and “Theater Camp” otherwise packs so much fun and joy into its 94 minute running time, it’s hard to get too mad. And while some beats may feel expected — keep your eyes peeled for the breakout star, you’ll see him within the first ten minutes — the screenwriters still find ways to turn potential cliches into something fresh and funny. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, jeez, you might even sing.
“Theater Camp” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.