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'Theater Camp' Review

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July 24, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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This review was originally published at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures releases the film in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 28.

If there’s one thing you’ll definitely walk away with after watching Theater Camp, it’s the sense of the immense amount of hard work that was put into this tiny film. Co-directed by Molly Gordon (also starring) and Nick Lieberman, and written along with Noah Galvin and Ben Platt, Theater Camp comes from a hodgepodge of places, such as an unreleased web series, a semi-improvised short film, and various internet sketches. The several different sources of ideas can be quite apparent, with much of the feature film playing more like a compilation of scenes rather than a whole narrative.

Somewhere far upstate in New York is the AdironACTS theater camp, a place kept alive by its fearless leader Joan (Amy Sedaris). Financial troubles are always beckoning, but everyone’s spirits are up because of their collective passion for the performing arts. But the good times seemed to be fading away after Joan had a strobe-light-induced seizure, putting her in a coma and leaving the camp in the hands of her dim-witted alpha-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro). The teachers, including former past campers Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), scramble to make up for the loss of Joan by putting on a lavish production to honor her life and legacy.

The influences of Christopher Guest, The Office, and Abbott Elementary are pretty evident within Theater Camp, with the mockumentary style being employed as a way to follow our underdog heroes as they try to beat impossible odds. We’re presented with an extremely inside-baseball version of events, such as auditions, casting sessions, tech demos, and rehearsals. Anyone with a theatrical background will find a lot to love about the unfolding events, even if the jokes surrounding them are a bit uneven.

The script also establishes too many characters early on, only for half of them to be abandoned rather quickly. There’s a new teacher named Janet (played wonderfully by Ayo Edebiri of The Bear) who has zero theatrical experience as she lied on her resume. As the only outsider in this crazy environment, she intermittently serves as the audience surrogate. But she then gets dumped pretty quickly, with more time being given to Troy’s various schemes to save the camp.

Thankfully, the production of the climatic play is quite endearing for both the story and the overall message about the positive influence the performing arts can have on anyone. There’s an overabundance of genuine love pouring out of the screen, which will surely be eaten up by any packed theater audience (Searchlight desperately hopes for this after acquiring the film for $8 million).

Theater Camp is by theater kids for theater kids. Those that have never found themselves stung by the acting bug may not come away with a huge smile on their face, but they will be given an enjoyable peek into this world of make-believe and harsh reality.

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