There’s so much wrong with “Theater Camp” (Searchlight), the co-directorial debut of actress and writer Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, it’s difficult to know where to begin. As a character in a much better movie once said, “Let's start at the very beginning/A very good place to start.”
Supposedly (and inconsistently) presented as a documentary about struggling theater camp Adirondacts (get it?), we are introduced to founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), and her annual springtime quest to raise funds and recruit talent for her beloved business. While at a school musical production, Joan, accompanied by camp manager Rita (Caroline Aaron), suffers a seizure and slips into a coma. Nevertheless, the documentarians decide to keep making their movie.
In Joan’s absence, Adirondacts is being run by her clueless vlogger son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), who is in way over his empty head. The staff, including overworked and undervalued tech director Glenn (Noah Galvin), longtime counselor Amos (Ben Platt at his most annoying), head of music Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele), choreographer Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), and new hire Janet (Ayo Edebiri), are some of the most miserable people you’ll ever meet. Each one is a failure in their respective careers, which is why they ended up at Adirondacts. Janet is running her own scam, having lied on her resume to get the job. The counselors don’t hide their disdain for the campers, thinking nothing of saying hurtful things to the kids.
Every summer the campers perform four productions, including an original one co-written by Amos and Rebecca-Diane. As a tribute to comatose founder Joan, they wrote the musical “Joan, Still.” While the camp is abuzz with classes and rehearsals, Troy is being wooed by Caroline (Patti Harrison), a cutthroat venture capitalist hired by nearby and affluent Camp Lakeside, to try and convince him to sell the property which is facing foreclosure.
Talk about drama! Unfortunately, there’s less to talk about when it comes to comedy as the laughs are often mean-spirited and at the expense of other characters. There are some memorable scenes, including one in which Glenn gives Troy the lowdown on the various cliques at the lunchroom tables. Also, a bit involving a money-making scheme of Troy’s, in which the camp hosts a dinner for the local Rotary Club, and some of the campers act as the waitstaff, ekes out a laugh or two. The tear stick scene, when a camper is busted for using one to cry (“doping for actors”), is also clever.
But any movie that makes you trudge through more than 70 minutes of sludge before the big payoff is frustrating. The 11 o’clock song finale, which features the camp’s Performance Weekend presentation of “Joan, Still,” when Glenn is unexpectedly given a chance to shine more than just the follow spot, is the highlight, but it comes too late.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of nine books including the poetry chapbook Refrain in Light (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.