Theater kids better take a seat, because there is a movie made especially for them.
“Theater Camp” had a limited theatrical release July 14, but it came to Hulu on Sept. 14. Through this bitterly funny and charming film, thespians can feel seen, and audiences can marvel at the oddities of the world on stage.
The mockumentary begins with a montage of children performing on stage, immediately welcoming the audience with a warm embrace. Amy Sedaris’ recognizable voice speaks over the clips, describing a place founded by her character, Joan, where outsiders can feel seen and starlets can showcase their greatest talents. This magical utopia, “‘Camp AdirondACTS,”’ is the entire film’s setting.
Within the first few minutes, the unexpected occurs. Joan suffers from a seizure due to strobe lights on stage in, as the “‘documentary crew”’ calls it, “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County.” After one day of filming, the “‘documentary”’ subject was in a coma, and they had to move on to the young and wildly quirky staff.
Joan’s son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over and finds it increasingly impossible to fill the gap left by his mother’s absence. His fellow staffers view him as an outsider with a lack of understanding for the craft. The campers view him as a mere placeholder while they wait for Joan to get better.
When Troy discovers Camp Lakeside, a rival camp across the lake, is circling to take AdirondACTS land, he finds an ally in Glenn (Noah Galvin). A quietly talented stage-crew manager who excels at his job, Glenn harbors dreams to be in the spotlight. Together, they must discover ways to push off foreclosure of the camp while a Lakeside financial consultant, Caroline (Patti Harrison), applies pressure.
With teachers Amos (Ben Platt), and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), as well as fellow staffers Janet (Ayo Edebiri), Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) and Gigi (Owen Thiele), there is never a dull moment. Amos and Rebecca-Diane are childhood camp attendees turned co-dependent oddballs with a dying passion for the theater. Janet lied on her resume, seemingly there for a paycheck. Gigi oversees costumes and Clive directs choreography, both constantly treating the children as adults. One common factor among the staff is their unwillingness to sugarcoat criticism regarding the young talent. They live and die for the theater, and in their eyes, so do the kids.
Directors Gordon and Nick Lieberman have proven themselves with this debut, creating a story filled with humor and passion. Although I never attended a theater camp, the mockumentary style along with the realistic dialogue, brought me there. Old videos appear throughout the film, pulled from the actors’ real lives, adding genuineness, while allowing the audience to become acquainted with the characters.
Galvin as Glenn stuck out to me in terms of physical comedy and line delivery. We see him rolling down hills and sprinting back and forth between buildings, especially during tech week, when stage managers go through a personal hell due to endless demand for props, lighting and maintenance. His scene work with Tatro allows us to see Tatro’s talents as well, playing Troy as his type-cast character of a charmingly dumb guy trying his best. Added depth in the writing, however, allows us to see a side of him where he can express empathy on screen and the viewer can feel it at home.
One complaint I’ve seen, and agree with, is the Black actors in the film being slightly undeserved. Although Edebiri, Graham and Thiele are given their moments to showcase comedic talents, I would’ve liked to see more of their characters. The oversight is more than likely because the actors given the most screen time were writers, but, despite the near-perfect pacing in the movie, added content would have given their characters the depth they deserved.
The movie is living proof that every musical should be shot on film. It is impossible for colors to pop the same way digitally, and vibrant colors are necessary for any decent movie musical. The scenes come to life, especially during a grand closing performance when bright reds and yellows dart across the stage, sparkling sets and costumes in one shot, while the performers sing original music from Rebecca-Diane and Amos’s show, “Joan, Still.”
“Joan, Still” is a piece Rebecca-Diane and Amos put together, in real life and in “Theater Camp.” The film itself was written by Galvin, Gordon, Platt and Co-Director Lieberman, collaborating on the original songs with composer Mark Sonnenblick. “Joan, Still” pays homage to Joan while she remains in a coma, a musical about her life. It includes a tap routine to a “Wall Street Noise” song, and a ballad sung by the unexpected star of the movie playing the titular role of Joan.
Although Gigi oversees costuming in the fictional world, Michelle Li is the name behind the beautiful wardrobes we see throughout the story. From Glenn being decked out head to toe in all black with a utility belt around his waist to Troy dressing like a typical Gen Z influencer, the costumes are essential to the story and the characters, adding layers without uttering a word.
Above all else, “Theater Camp” is a love letter to theater. It may be difficult to see at first, through the seemingly inappropriate behavior from the staff and the stress placed on the children, but all of the people working in front of and behind the camera are part of this community. It is emphasized throughout the film that this is a place filled with outsiders, kids who are rejected at their school and made to feel lesser, finding a home during the summer. As Rebecca-Diane writes in the finale song for “Joan, Still,”: “Camp isn’t home, but is it kind of? Kind of it is, I think it kind of is.”