The Plot: It’s summer in upstate New York. Kids arrive to spend the next few weeks at a different kind of camp – Theater Camp. Here they will learn about acting, dance, music, singing and stagecraft. This is all under the watchful eye of teachers Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), who have a habit of contradicting each other but still get on well. When the camp founder falls ill and is hospitalised in a coma, her dim-bulb son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes charge of the camp and negotiates some dodgy deals. This is despite the fact that he’s more into generating drama than understanding it. The build-up begins as the kids and teachers prepare for their big show…
The Verdict: ‘To all our drama teachers’ is the end credits dedication for Theater Camp. One gets the sense that after watching this charming film, those very drama teachers would be proud of what Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman have achieved with their directorial debut. It’s a warmly affectionate tribute to the amusing delights of amateur dramatics for a group of children – the no-hopers, the Broadway wannabes, the kids who have talent but need it to be coaxed out of them, even the kid who wants to be a hustler agent already. They all gather together with an eccentric crew of teachers, a flamboyant costume designer, a technical stage hand with a hidden talent and a new manager who has no theatrical ear to put on a show, in the grand tradition of such theatrical stories. It’s like a more junior Fame, loaded with catchy tunes which don’t always make sense but without the overarching teen drama. This is all attractively packaged too.
It’s a film that is loaded with personality from the get-go, establishing its scrappily endearing band of characters as they prepare to stage Joan, Still – inspired by the life of their absent founder. With her being stuck in a coma, it doesn’t stop them from broadcasting the show straight to her hospital bed though (prompting the film’s biggest laugh). This is where Gordon and Lieberman’s co-written script with fellow actors Ben Platt and Noah Galvin consistently scores high marks, in that it doesn’t underplay or overplay the comedic potential of this scenario. They find that sweet spot between laughing at the squabbling adult characters and their petty dramas while not doing so in a sarcastic manner. They’re gently poking fun at the characters’ limited but still passionate understanding of what makes a good show work and how to get the am-dram kids involved in an enthusiastic way. Speaking of which, the kids in the film have a natural ability to just play around and have fun with their show-stopping performances. They’re delightful to watch.
The kids very nearly act the grown-ups off the screen, but Gordon (so memorably deadpan in Shiva Baby) and Platt hold their own with their not-quite-power-couple that comes under the strain of ambition. It may be the case that due to training these kids who seem to be smarter than they are, they might soon be out of a job or be looking for a new one. Inside every drama teacher is the spirit of Laurence Olivier (that most theatrical of actors) trying to break out, it seems. Staged as a mockumentary, the film tracks the characters with sharp-witted observations via onscreen text at various intervals which work a treat. The film is a bit loose in structure and could easily be a bit longer given what a good time at the movies it is. There is a sense though that the loose structure is deliberate. This is letting the audience find their way around the plot with the disparate characters, who are still finding themselves while pretending to be onstage trees swaying in the wind or whatever (as Hugh Grant drily remarked about his early theatre days). Bravo to all concerned. Theater Camp is an all-round winner which warms the heart while tickling the funny bone – repeatedly.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Theater Camp (USA / 12A / 92 mins)
In short: Bravo!
Directed by Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman.
Starring Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron.