The feeling of joy that emanates from almost every frame of theater camp, a movie that arrived like a burst of July sun in the January frost of this year’s Sundance is as palpable as greasepaint and as sweet as bug juice.
THEATER CHAMP ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Aided by debuting feature directors Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon, this exuberant amalgam of Waiting for Guffmann And meatballs is a paean to summer misfits and theater people alike – that gloriously self-oblivious tribe that, to quote the film, “turns cardboard into gold”. Upcycling the “you gotta pay the rent” storyline from the 18th-century melodrama, the film tells the story of AdirondACTS, an upstate New York summer camp that finds itself on the brink of foreclosure after Joan (Amy Sedaris), the beloved landlady and spiritual leader, in a coma while scouting talent at a high school musical. We are informed that Joan suffered “the first”. Goodbye little bird–related injury in Passaic County history’ – the first knee-slapper in a true bout of movie jokes who refuses to stop acting crazy for more than 30 seconds.
Upcycling the “you gotta pay the rent” storyline from the 18th-century melodrama, the film tells the story of AdirondACTS, an upstate New York summer camp that finds itself on the brink of foreclosure after Joan (Amy Sedaris), the beloved landlady and spiritual leader, in a coma while scouting talent at a high school musical. It’s the first Goodbye little bird–related injuries in Passaic County history,” we are told in what is the first knee-slapper in a veritable onslaught of movie jokes that refuses to stop acting crazy for more than 30 seconds.
Joan’s son Troy (YouTuber turned American Vandal star Jimmy Tatro) — who spent his youthful summers crashing his scooter down stairwells instead of starring in his mom’s productions — is taking over the camp, and his crypto-bro behavior and lack of artistic attitude are troubling the true believers of the camp immediately.
“He’s the least creative person I’ve ever met,” says longtime acting instructor Amos, played with fearless aplomb by Tony winner Ben Platt, “and I haven’t even spoken to him yet.”
Amos’ penchant for squeezing every last ounce of drama out of every situation is aided and encouraged by Rebecca-Diane, played with blissful sincerity by Gordon (who you may recognize from her role as the seemingly doomed Claire in the remarkable second season of The bear). Amos and Rebecca-Diane — who write and stage Still Joan, a musical ode to the camp’s founder — are the codependent heart of AdrirondACTS and the film itself, and this summer they’ve
But it’s overworked tech guru Glenn who keeps things going. As Glenn, Noah Galvin graciously unveils the film. The good doctor actor – who co-wrote the script with Platt, Gordon and Lieberman – is Theater Camp‘s secret sauce, playing the diva whose extraordinary skills are hidden behind the spotlight he controls.
Embracing instead of refuting every conceivable trope surrounding the theatrically inclined, Theater Camp is about as tender and forgiving as satire can get. The genuine affection it exudes for its characters helps keep fresh what feels overly familiar at times. It plays like an inside joke for anyone who has ever acted or attended a high school play—in other words, pretty much anyone.
“It’s not funny,” says Janet, an ignorant counselor played brilliantly The bear‘s Ayo Edebiri, after two of her charges demonstrated a convincing feat of stage combat to some shocked camp visitors. “It’s art.”
Thanks to the sincerity of his intentions and cubic ton of jokes, Theater Camp manages to be both – the rare movie comedy that turns what could have been mundane into something not only delightful, but absolutely necessary.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.