Theater Camp is a mockumentary, but doesn’t really need to be one. The occasional title cards set some of the stage (no pun), but the documentarians don’t just not exist in the film—their subjects don’t even acknowledge they’re being filmed. And it’s about a bunch of theater kids and theater adults—and social media influencers—so you’d think someone would notice the camera crew. Co-directors Gordon and Lieberman (who “co-wrote” with cast members Noah Galvin and Ben Platt—Camp’s improvised) get some mileage out of the format in the first act, then don’t know what to do with it until the epilogue.
Mockumentaries can always do something in the epilogue if they want, thanks to the format.
But in the first act, the format lets the film introduce Amy Sedaris as an impassioned, perpetually broke theater summer camp owner who ends up in a coma during her spring fundraising tour. The film establishes her sidekick, played by Caroline Aaron, who will always be around in the movie but never have much to do except drop the occasional great one-liner. If there’s a scene about Aaron taking over the camp (or not), it didn’t make the final cut. Instead, Sedaris’s non-artistic son, played by Jimmy Tatro, takes over the camp. He’s a social media influencer planning to document his unexpected boss status.
He never documents his unexpected boss status. It’s like Camp forgot the bit until the third act. His influencer stuff comes back when evil rival camp owner—venture capitalist Patti Harrison—starts sniffing around the camp and flatters Tatro by watching his videos. Tatro was never into the arts, and, you know, content creators aren’t actually creative, so he doesn’t understand all the weird theater kids. Or the camp counselors. He only really bonds with Galvin, who plays the “third generation” stage manager; Galvin secretly has performing talent but has never exercised it.
Tatro’s plot is initially about running the camp into the ground because he’s a dope, only to have to try to save it once he makes one mistake too many. Along the way, he hires a new counselor (Ayo Edebiri), who the film pretends will matter and doesn’t. Thanks to the (intentionally) narratively choppy second act, Camp never has to do character arcs, which would be strange anyway since it focuses on the adults, but it should be about the kids. Question mark.
What’s so impressive about the film—thanks to editor Jon Philpot—is how well the thing flows. Even when the title cards are handling the audience, Camp’s got a great pace.
Besides Tatro’s camp owner in trouble plot, the main story is about Gordon and Pratt’s original musical. The camp does multiple musicals every summer (it’s so low budget we don’t see the others because they couldn’t afford the songs), and Gordon and Pratt’s is always the centerpiece. They grew up as besties going to camp together, only to become bestie camp counselors. Gordon’s been in love with Pratt forever, except he’s gay, which doesn’t matter since most characters are sans-sexual. The movie avoids going there at all, which is fine, but also, why bring it up in Gordon’s character’s ground situation? Especially given some of the later reveals, which the movie could’ve baked in early instead of dropping late for actual dramatic effect and not twists.
The adult cast is all okay or better. Since the movie makes fun of Gordon and Pratt so much, it’s hard to really “care” about them, especially when their actual emotional scenes are played for comedy. With them as the punchlines. It’s not unintentional, either. These sequences are usually beautifully cut by editor Philpot. It also limits their performances.
Gordon’s better than Pratt, though. Pratt seems to be protesting the idea he should have any meaningful scenes whatsoever, even when other characters try to drag them out of him. Ha ha, he’s a narcissist. So’s Tatro, and he’s a delight; easily the best adult performance.
Great, small turns from Nathan Lee Graham and Owen Thiele.
Galvin’s good, Aaron’s good, Edebiri’s good. The latter two just don’t get anything to do, and Galvin’s got to wait for the movie to gin up a way to get him involved. Sure, it does a great job with it, but it’s way late.
But what makes Theater Camp more than a competent, middling outing is the kids. In no particular order, Bailee Bonick, Donovan Colan, Luke Islam, Alexander Bello, Vivienne Sachs, Alan Kim, and Kyndra Sanchez hold it together. Jack Sobolewski, too, but—like Galvin—we’ve got to wait for him. The kids all have phenomenal timing, especially opposite the adults. It creates this lovely contrast in acting styles. The kids are eccentric but real; their counselors are eccentric but for a movie. None of the kids really get a showcase part. Sort of Sanchez, sort of Colan, but not really. They’re the Theater Camp players, but they’re essential.
Cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers does a nice job lighting (though the fake Super 8 is pointless unless it’s supposed to be a filter gimmick; though no one’s got a phone in Camp, not really). Gordon and Lieberman’s direction is good, which is sometimes disconcerting because the direction works, but the documentary conceit does not.
To be sure, Theater Camp could be better. But it’s still very impressive.