“Theater kid” can be a pejorative in Hollywood. Being a “theater kid” means you’re too enthusiastic, too showboaty—in other words, not cool. (See: the Anne Hathaway awards campaign backlash of 2012.)
The new comedy Theater Camp, which premiered at Sundance and was swiftly picked up by Searchlight Pictures, has a lot of “theater kid” energy and wears it proudly. Please don’t let that turn you off. Sure, it may be a little bit much for those who don’t thrive on references to Wicked and Throat Coat tea and Sweeney Todd, but it’s also delicately calibrated to celebrate overly dramatic weirdos while playfully ribbing them at the same time.
This gem of a mockumentary comes from a group of dedicated grown-up theater kids. Molly Gordon (Booksmart) directs alongside Nick Lieberman, and they co-wrote the script with their pals Noah Galvin (also Booksmart) and Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen). (Platt and Galvin, who are engaged, both played Evan Hansen on Broadway if you want to know how layered this theater kid thing is.)
The plot kicks off at a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie attended by Joan (Amy Sedaris), the beloved founder of the AdirondACTS summer camp. The unfortunate use of strobe lights gives Joan a stroke and puts her in a coma, forcing her bro-y, selfie-stick wielding son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to take over camp operations.
Troy loves Post Malone and doesn’t get what it means when campers call him a “music man,” meaning he is not the right person to lead these divas-in-training, who are trained to listen up only when hearing the opening lyrics of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma! The instructors are equally stressed out by Troy’s presence, particularly Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), two former campers who are attached at the hip and write and direct an original musical each year. This session they are composing a show in honor of their indisposed leader, which is to be called Joan, Still. (The actual songs are written by the screenwriting team and Mark Sonnenblick, and strike a perfect balance between intentionally amateurish and earwormy.)
Tatro, of Netflix’s American Vandal, has the dumb bro act down pat, while Gordon and Platt are endearingly obnoxious as these overly serious thespians who have decided to pour all of their creative passion into teaching because the larger entertainment industry has failed them. Galvin, meanwhile, is both the movie and the camp’s secret weapon as the do-it-all techie with a song in his heart, and The Bear star Ayo Edibiri is wonderfully strange as a new counselor with no actual experience in the performing arts.
But the smartest decision Theater Camp makes is hiring a brilliantly talented array of children to play the campers. Some of them you might recognize. Minari’s Alan Kim is a pint-sized wannabe agent who makes pretend deals on an office phone. Alexander Bello, from John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, is a belter who prays to Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald. (He also does a pretty solid “Epiphany” from Sweeney.) Kyndra Sanchez of The Babysitter’s Club plays a poised star with professional experience who incites Amos’ jealousy. The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers‘ Luke Islam refuses to let a blackout get in the way of him nailing the final note of “Defying Gravity.” And nail it he does.
With the adult actors playing zany characters, the kids’ genuine passion and skills ground the movie. Their performances make you believe in the mission of the camp, and may even have you wiping away tears.
Theater Camp borrows liberally from both Wet Hot American Summer and Waiting for Guffman, but never feels too derivative of its predecessors in part because it is so earnest. Filmed in a fake verité style, it rejects cynicism almost entirely while still managing to have a bit of edge, partially because it is aware how fleeting the magic of these couple of months can be for the AdirondACTS attendees. In the real world they will have to face the harsh realities of their peers or the fact that a career on the stage is unattainable for many. Here, they are little kings and queens of their nerdy realm. Although we’re meant to laugh at Amos and Rebecca-Diane—and it’s hard not to acknowledge the meta quality of Tony-winning Platt playing a never-been—there’s a melancholy to Platt and Gordon’s performances, even as she conducts seances and he is too harsh on tiny singers. In the campers they see their pasts, and their future that will never be.
But beyond that: The jokes are good. Sure, many require a knowledge of musical theater, but even newbies will find something to love. And that’s curtain.