The latter half of 2023 is proving to be a difficult one for American cinema. In light of the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes - which hope to secure fair pay for the thousands of blue-collar creatives in the American film industry, as well as ensure job security amidst the emergence of 'creative' AI - the release schedule is in flux. With participating unions banning their talent from promoting new releases, some high-budget flicks have been postponed to next year; Dune: Part Two, for example, has been moved to 2024 in the hope that stars Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya and Florence Pugh can partake in a heavy promo cycle. Smaller films, though, are being unceremoniously released in a reliance on organic buzz. Theatre Camp is one such film, and I'm here today to tell you not to miss it.
The 92-minute mockumentary focuses mainly on the counsellors of a struggling summer camp - AdirondACTS - which is committed to providing theatre kids with a safe-space to shine. The camp's founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) has been taken off the map after falling into a seizure-induced coma, which prompts her frat-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to unwittingly take on management duties. Troy acts as the audience cipher, and it's through him that we meet our main cast; Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) plays Amos, a narcissistic Juilliard reject whose co-dependancy on Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, Shiva Baby) proves evermore suffocating and restrictive. Booksmart's Noah Galvin plays tech-guy Glenn, and break-out comedienne Ayo Edibiri plays newcomer counsellor Janet, who puts the 'method acting' in 'lying on your CV'. Rounding out the ensemble are Owen Thiele (costume designer Gigi) and Zoolander's Nathan Lee Graham (dance professor Clive). Together, these actors shot Theatre Camp over just 19 days of filming, producing a staggering 70 hours of partially-improvised content.
It's in its improvisation and playfulness that Theatre Camp shines. There's a kind of electricity that arises when genuinely talented improvisers bounce off one another, and there are so many scenes here that made me howl with laughter. In fact, I would suggest that the film is at its best when it allows its ensemble to bounce off one another, with two such set-pieces standing out to me as exemplars of film direction that allows its actors to play; namely, the candle-lit casting sequence and the drunken fire-pit communion.
The child actors here are also fantastic, with some genuinely stellar performances; in fact, the little ones offer some of Theatre Camp's biggest laughs (teenager Luke's "CisHet bitch!" heckle was one such crowd pleaser in my screening). One of my personal favourite moments in the film is Rebecca-Diane's "past lives seminar", in which the spiritual Rebecca-Diane leads a workshop with the kids to establish their past identities. The only thing funnier than witnessing Gordon declare a little girl was once President William Howard Taft ("let that inform your singing") is watching the young actors in the scene try not to burst out laughing or ruin the shot.
Gordon is undoubtedly one of Theatre Camp's brightest stars (the actress also co-wrote and co-directed the film, alongside childhood friends Ben Platt and Nick Leibermann), and she's sure to recall 2023 as a pivotal year considering her simultaneous acclaim in Hulu's The Bear. It's in this light that I would offer my main critique of Theatre Camp, which is its depiction of Rebecca-Diane's relationship with Ben Platt's Amos. The two characters are loosely inspired by Platt and Gordon's actual childhood experience, with Gordon once being in love with Platt before realising he was gay--just like their characters within the film.
Indeed, Gordon has stated in an interview with ABC News (filmed before the strike action began) that the duo's "romantic relationship" underpins the entire film; "we really wanted to throw our kooky dynamic into the film, my gay best friend is one of the great loves of my life, and I love that [Theatre Camp's] core romantic story is about that relationship." The film is even peppered with home video footage of Gordon and Platt as children, substituted within the film to serve as foundational footage of Amos and Rebecca-Diane.
Despite this authenticity, I didn't quite buy the connection between Rebecca-Diane and Amos within the film. Platt's character was so unlikable, stubborn and narcissistic that I struggled to form much warmth toward him. Amos' brattiness in a key fight between the two characters left such a bad taste in my mouth that their eventual reconciliation felt grating and un-earned. I'm sure Platt is a warm and likeable figure in real life, but Amos' lack of character development within the plot of Theatre Camp (beyond a lacklustre "I'm sorry") made me resent the time spent on the dysfunctional duo--I'd much rather have spent more time with other counsellors, like Edibiri's under-used/written Janet. I also thought Troy was the wrong choice for an audience cipher; most of the audience for this film will find his character to be the least relatable in the cast, not the most.
These are ultimately minor gripes. Theatre Camp is a massive success, and will be a surefire hit for anyone with experience in the world of am-dram and drama school. As a celebration of the stage and the refuge it provides, Theatre Camp is a triumph in small-scale comedic cinema that is as instantly quotable as Mean Girls or Summer Heights High. The latter comparison, though, reveals its weakness; this isn't a new concept, and Chris Lilley's 'Mr. G' is ultimately a far spunkier take on this archetype/concept than Theatre Camp ends up providing. Perhaps a more thought-out set of character arcs for our ensemble would have pushed this flick over the edge and into true brilliance? Still, this is a comedy that deserves to be seen in the cinema, and one I can't wait to return to in the future.
Here's hoping we get to see a few more of those 70 hours in a future director's cut... who wants to start the petition?
Written by James Green