Sundance 2023 Review: THEATER CAMP, Feel-Good, Hilarious Comedy

The summer mockumentary about a Gen Z musical camp, spread between 'Wet Hot American Summer' and 'What We Do in the Shadows,' brims with a refreshing community vibe.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Sundance 2023 Review: THEATER CAMP, Feel-Good, Hilarious Comedy

Short film comedy Theater Camp by Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, and Nick Lieberman received a feature-length treatment. The expanded film with the same title bowed as a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and became one of the most buzzed oeuvres. Searchlight Pictures snatched the worldwide rights for $8 million.

Written by Platt, Galvin, Gordon, and Liberman, and co-directed by Gordon and Lieberman, the film develops the initial idea and material into a more polished, Christopher Guest-stylized mockumentary. A summer comedy about a musical camp for children may not sound all that attractive a vehicle at first peek, but Theater Camp delivers. Aplenty.

Following the golden rule of the musical convention about a strong opening number, the Platt-Galvin-Gordon-Lieberman gang kicks the film off with a cavalcade of gags. One of them includes Amy Sedaris' character having a seizure at a children's rendition of Bye Bye Birdie. It looks funnier than it sounds, given the situational context the scene is deployed in.

Sedaris portrays Joan Rubinsky for brief moments before ending up in a coma several minutes into the film. She is a maternal figure who owns and runs AdirondACTS, a musical summer camp where kids learn the nuts and bolts of musical theater across a variety of on-stage and behind-the-scenes roles.

The new season is destined to be different with the camp´s leader rendered unconscious. The immortal adage claims the show must go on, and Joan's son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) steps in to run the camp and the show. Tatro obviously enjoys depicting an overtly-confident crypto-bro jock with massive Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

A group of eccentric and neurotic instructors in a modest caricature of art professionals and hopefuls guides the kids on their initiation to razzle dazzle of show business. The adults deal with their own basket of insecurities and dilemmas while dishing out well-intentioned pieces of advice,  albeit not always fit for the kids.

A pair of hapless actors-turned-teachers, Amos Klobuchar (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), are the leading instructors. They are also the masterminds who are writing and directing the crown jewel of the camp, and the ultimate outcome of everyone's efforts during the stay, an original musical titled Joan, Still. The biographical musical is about none other than the AdirondACTS camp's founder.

Rebecca-Diane and Amos are the backbone of the film, however, Gordon and Lieberman approach Theater Camp as an ensemble piece. It makes interactions livelier beyond the beef of the central pair of instructors. Several characters have their own narrative arc while the most visible is of Amos and Rebecca-Diane in a partnership-turned-rivalry twist.

Theater Camp hits all the familiar notes of a summer coming-of-age reversing the formula of Freaks & Geeks. The misfits are the stars and Theater Camp appropriately empowers the children who would have been a target of bullying in a more stereotypical environment.

The creative team behind the film espoused a self-deprecating and deadpan fashion to skew adults and boost kids' confidence. Ultimately, the story serves as a structure to hold the streak of sitcom moments.

Theater Camp borrows the film format to forge a frictionless cohesion in serving basically a series of comical sketches. It´s not hard to imagine Theater Camp as a webseries with bite-size chunks of farcical encounters and preparations gone awry. The episodic potential remains tempting, and the What We Do in the Shadows small-screen spin-off Wellington Paranormal serves as a great blueprint.

The fragmentary structure and the celebration of collective spirit with the musical equivalents of popculture gags and the zany quirkiness turn Theater Camp into a sort of gen-Z Community and What We Do in the Shadows mashup.

Funnily enough, the scriptwriters treat musical references similarly to what the writers of Frasier did with opera puns. Musical aficionados will have a blast, while audiences unversed in musical theater can easily understand the joke.

The landscape of feature-length comedy films became a wasteland. The main dispenser of the recurrent funny bone fix became the small screen. Theater Camp arrives as a long-awaited big-screen rejuvenation in the comic department, despite how much it is influenced by episodic storytelling.

Wedged between Wet Hot American Summer and What We Do in the Shadows, the musical-themed summer-camp comedy relies less on the nostalgia of teen and coming-of-age camp comedies of yesteryear and charts a new path embraced by a younger generation.

Theater Camp mixes queer and non-queer folk cleansed from antiquated social stereotypes while evading any ideology indoctrination (a kid comes out to its two fathers as straight). Tatro's character is the odd duck but huge kudos to him for taking the jokes and pushing the fish-out-of-water depiction to almost a breaking point of feeling sorry for Troy.

Even the would-be-bully has a sad puppy aura as he longs for the communal connections and appraisal the camp kids are getting. Tatro partially resurrects his memorable creation of Dylan Maxwell from American Vandal, which shares the comedy fold with Theater Camp, despite opting for a more low-profile quirkiness.

Theater Camp won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for the ensemble cast.

Theater Camp

  • Molly Gordon
  • Nick Lieberman
  • Noah Galvin
  • Molly Gordon
  • Nick Lieberman
  • Amy Sedaris
  • Ayo Edebiri
  • Ben Platt
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Ben PlattMolly GordonNick LiebermanNoah GalvinSundance Film FestivalAmy SedarisAyo EdebiriComedy

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