Theater Camp Movie Review
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Nearly 40 years ago Rob Reiner forever changed the movie landscape with This is Spinal Tap, a mockumentary that followed the fictitious band, Spinal Tap. Opening to high praise from critics and fans alike, the film failed to ignite the box office (just $4.7 million) but found a cult following which to this day still finds it sitting atop many ‘best mockumentary’ lists.
For those not familiar with what exactly a mockumentary is, lets take a step back and define the term. According to Wikipedia, “a mockumentary (a portmanteau of mock and documentary) is one type of film or television show depicting fictional events, but presented as a documentary which in itself is a subset of a faux-documentary style of film-making.”
This is Spinal Tap wasn’t the first mockumentary – that honor belongs to 1957’s Swiss Spaghetti Harvest – but its success led to a beloved new genre that every decade or so welcomes a new cult classic. 1996 saw the return of Christopher Guest (who starred in This is Spinal Tap) in Waiting for Guffman, a mockumentary about a small town putting on a musical. In 2006, Sasha Baron Cohen introduced the world to Borat, a Kazakhstan journalist who experiences America for the first time. And now here in the 2020’s, first-time directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman introduce the world to Theater Camp.
Camp AdirondACTS is unlike most overnight camps that you may imagine when thinking about camp. In place of land and water sports, children partake in acting, dancing, and singing classes. And instead of pictures of teen heartthrobs aligning cabins, kids hang Waitress posters and vibe over Liza Minnelli pictures.
Run by camp founder, Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), each summer campers compete against one another to win parts in well-known musical productions and staff-written musicals. During the school year, Joan scours the east coast fundraising and seeking out talented kids aged 8-18 to spend their summer honing their craft at her northern NY camp. “A place where anyone is free to be themselves”, Joan is short on funding and so desperate that she even considers inviting an untalented child because of his family’s wealth. In a stroke of bad luck, Joan falls into a coma and the future success of the camp falls to Joan’s son, Troy (Home Improvement‘s Jimmy Tatro). Unlike Joan, however, Troy has zero interest in musicals. A self-proclaimed business vlogger and en-Troy-prenuer, Troy’s business acumen is just as bad as his understanding of theater yet its on his shoulders to keep the camp afloat and private investors at bay.
While Theater Camp follows Troy’s journey to save his mom’s beloved camp, the film is centered around Camp AdirondACTS’ staff including Amos (Emmy, Grammy, and Tony-award winning actor, Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon). Amos heads up drama, Rebecca-Diane leads music theory and together, they “share a soul” (but are not codependent despite the fact that the former AdirondACTS campers and lifelong friends who share the responsibility for creating the closing musical at camp each year can’t live without one another). Or can they? When Rebecca-Diane begins to grow beyond the camp, Amos is left to figure out what his role is in a world where Rebecca-Diane is not with him every step of the way.
The camp staff includes a number of highly eccentric counselors who on on hand feel so made-up they can’t be real, but on the other hand, understanding the theater world, seem so real. And that’s where much of the magic of lies in the film – exaggerations of what summer camp for thespians must be like but yet not so crazy to actually exist.
Just like many Broadway musicals, Theater Camp will face headwinds on its way to cult classic status. Musicals and the people who help create the magic – from the stagehands to the ensemble to the leads themselves – are not for everyone. And that’s too bad because Theater Camp is a funny film with killer Joan Still final numbers that will have you wishing the musical was in fact real.
Not all of Theater Camp comes together. Gordon’s The Bear co-star, Ayo Edebiri’s role as Janet, an unqualified counselor, feels as if something was left on the cutting room floor, leaving a character deserving of a bit more attention. Caroline Aaron’s role as camp manager Rita Cohen is mostly filler in an otherwise tight sub-90-minute film. And too many of the best lines are wasted in the trailer.
Despite these missteps, Theater Camp deserves a standing ovation. And just as Waiting for Guffman created something special for local theater, so will Theater Camp for young children who aspire to make it big on Broadway one day.