Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in the film THEATER CAMP. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Theater Camp | Now in theaters | ★★★★

Rickety, funny, and dizzy with affection, the indie comedy Theater Camp is an ode to that most noble of high school cliques: The theater kids. 

 It goes like this: Camp AdirondACTS is, as the name suggests, a performing arts summer camp in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. Founded by the legendary Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), an old-school theater lifer, the camp is dedicated to providing a summer oasis for those who love drama, musical theater, and adjacent disciplines. (Juggling, say.) 

 As a practical matter, that means Camp AdirondACTs is a second home and safe space for a lot of misfits and queer kids—campers and counselors alike. They love their summer camp and their summer camp loves them. The trouble this particular season is that owner Julie has lapsed into a coma during a production of Bye Bye Birdie. Money is tight and now the property is being targeted by the corporatized rich kids’ camp across the lake. 

 Determined to save the day, camp alumni Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) rally the returning campers who need their summer camp like flowers need the sun. Will Amos and Rebecca draw on memories of their own magical summers? Will desperate plans regarding Cole Porter go hilariously wrong? Will the kids stage one last musical extravaganza to rescue the camp? 

 Yes, yes, and kind of! It gets weird! 

 Lead performers Gordon and Platt wrote the script with fellow theater nerds Nick Lieberman (who co-directs with Gordon) and Noah Galvin, who plays the camp’s beleaguered technical director. Filmed in just 19 days at an old summer camp facility, the production relied heavily on improvisation from its talented cast. 

Everyone involved in the film clearly has a deep knowledge of children’s theater and summer camps. The result is a ballistic style of comedy powered by enthusiasm, specificity, and detailed character work. The focus is also mostly kept on the grown-ups, which is the right choice. 

The educators at this camp consider themselves artists; you know the type. I particularly liked the moment when costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele) wheels on a young camper: “It says here you’re allergic to polyester. Why?” In another scene, the adults have a boozy bonfire using the alcohol they confiscate from the campers. 

The kids, meanwhile, are left to sort out the lessons of their vital but frequently inappropriate education. One sequence in the big musical finale has children acting out a cocaine sight gag with a giant nose at Studio 54. It’s hard to explain, actually. The humor has real heart but is always delivered with some kind of spin, as when a nervous heterosexual camper finally comes out to his visiting dads. 

With its high spirits and improv riffing, Theater Camp necessarily suffers a bit structurally. The film’s mockumentary conceit is forgotten about halfway through and the ending is a joyful train wreck of loose threads and half-baked ideas. Several plot points are resolved in post-credits scenes and title cards. 

But that’s about right for this particular movie, which is all about slapdash art and in-the-moment glory. In a way, Theater Camp is a throwback to the kind of gonzo comedies that ruled the early ‘80s, updated with 21st-century improvements to inclusivity and relaxed self-awareness. 

In the end, it was the cheerful audacity of the film that made me happy. Most of the movies in multiplexes these days feel like skilled merchants selling engineered products. Theater Camp feels like artists making art, however clumsily: Real people making real comedy out of the stuff they really love. 

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