Theater Camp (2023)
Directors: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman
Screenwriters: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt
Starring: Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Ayo Edebiri
The New York premiere of the much-anticipated comedy, Theater Camp, was an understated yet surprisingly lively event. Less than 24 hours after the SAG strike went into effect, the film debuted to the public at the Lincoln AMC, sans cast who was set to introduce their work. Nevertheless, audience members were in high spirits and there was popcorn to be had as people filed into the theater.
Theater Camp follows a rich Hollywood tradition of examining the dialed-up drama found at any American summer camp. From The Parent Trap to Friday the 13th, summer camp has made moviegoers laugh, cry, and scream for as long as movies have been around. The idyllic backdrop of string bracelets, lakes with canoes, and bunks shared with friends from other cities is as familiar as it is deliciously specific. The enclosed space pushes the story forward and prompts the characters to reach a boiling point as they are forced to confront their issues with one another within the walls of the crumbling venue.
Most directly, Theater Camp is the descendent of the 00s cult classic, Wet Hot American Summer. Serving as the launching pad for many a career (Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Paul Rudd all have starring roles), Wet Hot American Summer is a raunchy take on the summer camp flick. Satirizing the sexed-up counsellors and their inappropriate leadership styles, the film put fresh eyes on the world of summer sleep-away camps. Contrasting the virginal, “All-American” reputation set by films of the past, Wet Hot American Summer was initially poorly reserved by the public but has since become essential comedy viewing. Perhaps because of the groundwork laid by the previous film, Theater Camp was allowed to soar in its unapologetic exploration of theater nerds and their interpersonal relationships.
Like the 2001 film before it, Theater Camp draws on a wealth of talent from their child stars and a fundamental understanding of the institution they set to satirize. With counselors Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) leading the charge, anybody who has set foot in a drama classroom in their youth will see themselves in this film. Both Gordon and Platt have a deep connection to the material as both have backgrounds in theater and this is evident in their characters. The neurotic and borderline abusive camp counselors will stop at nothing to produce the best original musical upstate New York has ever seen. They aren’t afraid to berate their child stars (dubbed the most talented kids at camp) to get their final product.
Janet (Ayo Edebiri) is another highlight. Due to a severe lack of funding, the camp director Troy (Jimmy Tatro) is forced to open positions up to just about anyone who will take them. Introduced simply as “lied on her résumé”, Janet muddles her way through the camp the best she can with the made-up skill set she came with. Though it’s a small role, Edebiri once again proves that she can steal any scene she has a line in. From facial expressions to line delivery, she is a star in the making.
The best part of theater camp is its ability to combine effortless humor with a sincere love for the experience. More than anything else, it’s evident that every member of the cast has some connection to their character – no matter how exaggerated they might be. There’s a heartfelt (and hilarious) number at the end of the film that expresses this sentiment – theater camp is home for the kids who don’t fit in. No matter how cutthroat or strange it might seem to the outside world, the theater provides refuge and community for so many kids struggling to find their identity. Whether they are part of the LGBTQ+ community, face bigotry in their home life, or are just searching for a place to belong, the theater gives that to so many people.
The release of this film felt particularly powerful at a time when the future of actors and writers is up in the air. Theater Camp acutely embodies the emotional journey of wondering if you’re ever going to make it in the industry. With empathetic and succinct writing, and a cast and crew that put every fiber of their being into crafting a comedy that feels emotionally true to the real world, it is essential to assert the power of writers and actors in the arts. Theater Camp is a reminder that comedies like this are special and are only possible with the tireless (and often thankless) dedication of the people who make them.