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'Theater Camp' Captures the Preposterous Sincerity of Theater Kids

By Seth Freilich | Film | August 1, 2023 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | August 1, 2023 |


Theater enthusiasts often say, “there’s nothing like being onstage in front of a live audience,” and while I understand that sentiment, based on my theater background, it doesn’t feel entirely accurate. There are moments in various professions that can elicit a similar feeling, though perhaps practitioners of those fields don’t get as many of these opportunities as an actor stepping onto the stage eight times a week during a theatrical run. What I have found uniquely attributable to being onstage is when a performance is genuinely—to employ an overused yet accurate acting trope—in the moment. In all my years of performing, I’ve only truly felt this once, particularly in non-improv scenarios (since improv is inherently about being in the moment). When you’re on stage, fully embodying your character, not merely delivering someone else’s words but words that feel like your own, listening to, and metaphorically dancing with your onstage partners, it is intoxicating. Truly, there’s nothing like it.

The first time I watched the indie comedy Theater Camp, as part of this year’s Sundance, I was left disappointed. I realized this was my fault. I was not in the moment and truly receptive to what the film represented. I entered with expectations based on my love of theater and my personal experiences. I wanted to love the movie I presumed it to be, and when it didn’t deliver what I was looking for, I came away disenchanted. As the film continues a small but impressive indie release against the Oppenheimer and Barbie juggernauts, I decided to give it a second chance. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while.

Theater Camp, as you might gather, focuses on a theater camp in the Adirondacks punnily called the AdirondACTS Theater Camp. When the director and patron saint of the camp falls ill* just before camp starts up, it’s up to the rest of the managing staff — particularly Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) — and her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), to keep things going. Troy comes in full of the kind of douchebag, tech bro energy (“How can I take a business from lame to lit?”) that suggests he might want to rename the place Camp X (ahem). Directors Amos and Rebecca-Diane, meanwhile, are trying to manage the staff and the kids while also needing to write the end-of-summer big show finale.** From there, the much-improvised film focuses on many ridiculous characters while running through all of the theatrical production beats, from auditions and rehearsals to the appropriately sweet but ridiculous final performance.

*“It was the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County.”
**One example of a prior finale - The Hannukah Divorce.

The true magic of theater kids is their energy, which I can best describe as preposterously sincere flamboyance. This energy turns many people off in real life, and the same could have easily happened on screen. However, Gordon (The Bear, Booksmart) and co-director Nick Lieberman (the pair wrote the film along with Noah Galvin), along with many others in and behind the film, come from a deep love of theater themselves. And thus, they treat these ridiculous kids and their camp with sincere respect while still recognizing how preposterous so much of this is. So when Troy is being given the tour and is told, “those are the Rent kids, those are the Fosse kids…,” the film and the kids understand that this is ridiculous and that it’s OK to laugh because it’s much more “laughing with” than “laughing at.”

While the filmmakers deftly walk that line, it only works on the back of the performances. Everyone here is tone perfect. Platt (Pitch Perfect, Dear Evan Hansen) and Gordon, being older, are actually the two who do lean more into being laughed at, and are clearly OK with that. So when Platt’s Amos is called a teacher and responds, “So that’s actually wildly opinionated — I’m a performer who works full time as an acting teacher,” it’s a tone-perfect delivery that doesn’t even need to wink to give you permission to laugh at it while still rooting for Amos. On the adult/staff front, Ayo Edebiri (The Bear) shines as a newly-hired teacher with no theater experience,* and Jimmy Tatro (Home Economics) steals almost every scene he is in with his well-perfected ability to play a lovable and sincere idiot. In fact, his separate storyline about trying to keep the camp afloat while juggling a buyout bid from an opposing camp is the weakest part of the film, and yet he and Patti Harrison (as the representative of the other camp) are so good that this rote plotline doesn’t matter.

*Teaching a class, she socratically asks, “What is stage combat” before hilariously continuing “like, what is it? What is it?!”

Meanwhile, the kids hold their own when it comes to grounding the comedy with sincerity so that we laugh with them. The best, and most ridiculous by a wide margin, example of this is Alan (Alan Kim), who wants nothing more than to be an agent. In fact, he is also the perfect example of the dichotomy of my two viewing experiences. The first time, I loathed everything about the character (not the actor) because it’s ridiculous to have this little kid at theater camp who only cares about representing actors and the business of agency. But the second time, just going with it, he was one of my favorite parts because of how committed to and sincere he is about the stupidity of being a child agent for children. Hell, I’d watch a whole spin-off about Alan representing kids as they go back to school and audition for their fall plays.

Late in the movie, a character notes: “I shoulda tried hard to understand what you were doing here because now I get it. These people are really weird, but they’re wonderful.” So too, this film. Once I threw out what I wanted the film to be and accepted it for what it is, I get it. It’s weird and wonderful and probably going to be a comfort rewatch for many years to come.

Also, it’s worth noting that there are many “that’s amusing” types of laughs, but also a few gut-busters. A highlight for me was a moment late in the film when something happens that had most of the theater in hysterics, over which we could hear one voice go, “oh my god!” That’s good theater and good comedy.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, ‘Theater Camp’ wouldn’t exist.