Searchlight Pictures, 2023
Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman
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Youthful, lighthearted, and fun movies and TV shows
Movies and TV shows that make you laugh or involve physical activities like dance and exercise
It’s no secret that comedy is an ever-evolving art. Not everything that was funny in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s induces the same raucous laughter now. Sometimes, avid fans of acclaimed comedies from these decades cringe at how outdated or tasteless the humor is on a re-watch. Nonetheless, certain principles of comedy and its performers will always hold true. Good timing, authenticity and self-awareness will always succeed no matter the social climate. These strengths are what make Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp such an endearing indie project.
When the owner of Adirond Acts theater camp, Joan (Amy Sedaris, Elf), slips into a coma, her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, 22 Jump Street) is tasked with keeping the business afloat. Meanwhile, Amos (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, Booksmart) must co-produce and co-direct a play within three weeks for the talented camp members to honor Joan. Joined at the hip, both aspire to perform professionally but agree to teach until they get their big breaks. Not only have they not even started writing the play, but they must deal with Troy’s ill-fitting fundraising attempts to head off bank foreclosure on the camp.
Adapted from a 2020 short film of the same name, Theater Camp is shot as a docu-style comedy and leans entirely on humor. There are no love stories or action sequences to make the motion picture a blend of multiple genres, meaning its comedy has to be even more on point. The quirky indie excels in this regard due to the performances of its cast, the editing, and most of all, its authenticity. A key element of successful comedy is respecting the audience’s intelligence. Theater Camp not only does this well but simultaneously respects the intelligence of its characters. Rather than writing the child characters as silly and ignorant, as many adult writers feel compelled to do, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman create child characters that are smart and self-aware. Designated stagehand Glenn (Noah Galvin, Assassination Nation) even conveys this to Troy, saying, “These kids are smart; you just have to meet them on their level.”
Additionally, Theater Camp does an impeccable job of balancing the displays of stereotypes in the world of theater. It presents three-dimensional characters without being disingenuous. For instance, Troy plays a fairly dense “bro” character completely unfamiliar with anything related to theater. On the other hand, Amos and Rebecca-Diane are very expressive and dramatic in their disagreements, a common personality trait for performers in many fields. The film even mocks influencers, as Troy tries to get a young group of social media investors called The Founding Ballers to financially support Adirond Acts. They walk around the camp with selfie sticks and give constant monologues about what they are doing, a familiar site for those who spend time on YouTube.
Despite having stereotypical traits, the way the characters interact with each other is what gives them depth. Even though he has no passion for theater, Troy treats everyone with kindness and respect, defying the expectation that he would act as a bully or a bigot. Amos and Rebecca-Diane consistently uplift the children at the camp and put aside petty differences for the good of the production. Rather than a “man vs. man” conflict, the struggle in Theater Camp is the group’s short time frame and the impending foreclosure. Money and deadlines provide the biggest obstacles to success rather than mean-spirited people. This allows for the camp to be portrayed as a place where theater actors are accepted rather than bullied or marginalized.
Gordon and Lieberman also make sure no matter how absurd or theatrical any scene gets, there is a straight man calling out the absurdity. Even with Troy as a central character, the children and other counselors often provide this stabilizing presence. Rebecca-Diane’s earthy vernacular draws raised eyebrows and frank responses from either the kids or Janet (Ayo Edebiri, The Bear), a counselor with no theater background who lied on her resume to get the job. Just the same, when Janet tells fake stories about her qualifications, another counselor asks her, “What exactly do you do here?” The characters achieve three-dimensionality simply through their interactions with each other.
For the best comparison to Theater Camp, venture into the world of animation and look at the 2016 children’s movie Sing. In the critically acclaimed kid’s comedy, a theater owner in a city of human-like animals tries to save his struggling business with a singing competition. The film acknowledges the quirks and eccentricities of talented performers, regardless of background, instead of pretending they don’t exist. Rather than including a cartoonish villain, both Sing and Theater Camp cleverly use life circumstances as the antagonist, leaning on self-awareness and introspective characters for laughs.