Sundance Film Festival Review: Ben Platt Captivates in Affectionate Christopher Guest-Inspired Mockumentary Theater Camp

Sundance Film Festival Review: Ben Platt Captivates in Affectionate Christopher Guest-Inspired Mockumentary Theater Camp

Truly celebrating the brilliant but slightly unhinged educators who create safe, comfort spaces that allow reserved children to be themselves and find their confidence in relatable, affectionate movies is a powerful tool that society needs right now. The new comedy, Theater Camp, does just that as it enthralling captures the defining niche experience that campers and counselors have at the titular youth stage-training program.

Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman made their feature film directorial debuts on the project, which they also produced. The duo also co-wrote Theater Camp‘s script with Noah Galvin and Ben Platt, who also starred in the project with Gordon. The feature is based on the scribes’ 2020 short film that has gained a cult following since its initial release during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Theater Camp, which was shot in the mockumentary style, follows an enthusiastic group of kids and their counselors as they return the scrappy titular summer program, AdirondACTS, in upstate New York that’s a haven for budding performers. However, the fate of the struggling endeavor is called into question when its founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris), enters into a strobe-induced seizure during a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie and falls into a coma.

As a result, in its show-must-go-on tradition, company manager Rita (Caroline Aaron) is left in a predicament just as the year’s group of children is due to arrive. Joan’s son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), who’s more interested in finances than theater, is also tasked with keeping the thespian program running on its shoestring budget.

With financial ruin looming, Troy promises to show the staff how to make the failing business successful. While the task initially seems impossible, as he doesn’t understand the linguistics of theater, he eventually joins forces with theater teachers Amos (Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and their fellow counselors.

The faculty, including technical director Glenn (Galvin), costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele) and dance teacher Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), are also forced to come up with a solution before the curtain rises on opening night and the camp is forced to close for good. Amos and Rebecca-Diane, meanwhile, decide to composes an original show that serves as a tribute to their beloved founder, called Joan, Still. To stop the bank from closing on the property, Troy puts all his hopes on the original musical to secure rescue investors and save his mother’s cherished theater camp.

Even as first-time helmers, Gordon and Lieberman were able to effortlessly adapt the vital messages of the movie’s story for the screen. The filmmakers enthralling highlighted how the campers have growing ambitions and the counselors have dashed dreams in the theater community, but no matter what adversity they all face, they ultimately find and embrace positive outlooks in life.

Amos and Rebecca-Diane, for example, are distinct characters who standout in their journey of finding the strength they need to accept the struggles in their lives. They’re the most fully developed adult characters, who are both showcased as being insufferable and endearing as they struggle to find contentment in their lives. While the two are unable to accept the fact that AdirondACTS, which is their biggest professional achievement, may permanently close, they redeem themselves by being devastated over Joan’s deteriorating heal.

The duo initially lash out at not only the campers and their fellow counselors, but also each other, as a coping mechanism over the unpredictable changes in their lives. But they ultimately embark on a relatable emotional quest to appreciate the happiness the camp has brought them, instead of the disappointment that lies ahead if it closes.

While Theater Camp appeals to a specific niche audience of musical theater fans, its overall story authentically celebrates the safe spaces that allow all kids to be themselves and find their confidence. Gordon, Lieberman and their fellow cast and crew members effortlessly convey the love of their creative outlet, particularly through improvisation inspired by Christopher Guest. (He’s most known for having written, directed and/or starred in comedy films that were also shot in the mockumentary style, including This Is Spinal Tap.)

Theater Camp‘s creative team, which grew up in youth theater, much like its characters, captivatingly parodies the stereotypes seen in the campers and counselors who populate the titular programs every summer. From the exuberant campers who grow more confident about their creative talents to the counselors who are unable to accept that they didn’t achieve all of their dreams, the characters’ serious nature about their goals yields hilarious moments throughout the story.

The movie’s distinct, relatable characters and natural, engaging comedy are also driven by its stellar visuals. Theater Camp‘s costume designer, Michelle Li, masterfully showcased the characters’ distinct styles and personalities by their clothing’s unique patterns and fabrics, especially during the campers’ performances. Combined with the remote, rustic nature of the sleepaway camp’s location in Upstate New York’s village of Warwick, which was crafted by production designers Charlotte Royer and Jordan Janota, the comedy’s visuals truly immerse the characters in the setting’s authentic environment.

Gordon and Lieberman’s feature film directorial debut affectionately captures the defining niche experience that campers and counselors have at sleepaway stage-training program. Interweaving the serious message that no matter what adversity they all face, campers and counselors will ultimately find their happiness with light-hearted improvised comedy, Theater Camp is a stellar examination into what life is really like for society’s perceived outsiders.

Grade: B

Theater Camp had its premiere on January 21 in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Searchlight Pictures. The comedy is the winner of the festival’s Best Ensemble Cast award.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

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