By Bradley Lane
It is painfully obvious when you are watching a film that doesn’t fully understand its source material. Whether that thing is a book, a setting, or even a culture, the lack of detail when depicting these ideas can immediately be identified as forced or fake. Theater Camp is the exact opposite of this phenomenon; it understands the culture at the core of its story so well it feels authentic in a profoundly comforting way. Having spent time in drama programs in my youth, I have met both the kids and teachers that are portrayed in this film, and to see them so lovingly realized is not just entertaining, but absolutely hilarious.
When Joan, the proprietor of a theater camp in upstate New York falls into a coma, it’s up to her son Troy to stave off an imminent foreclosure. His complete inexperience and lack of any knowledge of theater aside, Troy has a heart of gold and truly wants to run the camp as best he knows how, and with help from camp vets Rebecca-Diane and Amos the camp runs its whole season, albeit only after incurring a continual comedy of errors.
The script co-written by stars Molly Gordon, Ben Platt and Noah Galvin harnesses years of experience in these types of environments to develop characters that are fully formed and three-dimensional, while still loudly displaying their comedic quirks. There is an inherent ridiculousness juxtaposed with intense seriousness within theater culture which allows for plenty of opportunities of singing, dancing and playing pretend. Add into this silly scenario the fact that most of the cast of teachers have been spurned by the entertainment industry and the hilarious effect of their jealousy leaking into their teaching and you get a setup for comedy gold.
What really shines through when watching Theater Camp isn’t the smart jokes and excellent performances, it’s just how fun it looks like it was to make. Lackluster child actors can break a great film, but thankfully the children in Theater Camp demonstrate a real naturalism to their performances, and I imagine that comes from creating an authentic atmosphere that they would already be familiar with. It is a joy to understand that, while audiences will laugh, this film is laughing with its subjects, not at them.
Theater Camp is an ode to being overly serious and playing pretend with your friends. It is a celebration of queer, POC and otherwise weird kids finding community and safe spaces in the arts. It is a heartwarming, laugh-out-loud comedy that didn’t get the love it deserved when it was released in select theaters earlier this year. You can stream Theater Camp now exclusively on Hulu. – 4/5 stars