Welcome to AdirondACTS Theater Camp in gorgeous upstate New York. Led by founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), the kids, a menagerie of the precocious and hyperactive, are about to put on a production of Bye Bye Birdie. The stage lights are on and––oh, wait. Never mind. Joan has just suffered a seizure from the strobing, so she’s in the hospital. Apparently the “documentary” filmmakers have only been on location for a day. Alas, we only know that because a title card tells us. We don’t really get to see anything, and via another card we learn Joan’s techbro of a son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), has arrived to salvage the camp.
The jokes continue, largely of the predictable sort. He’s a chronic slang shitter with a ring light. He also, in what the film finds to be hysterical, just loves Post Malone. But wait: he’s not the focus either. Enter Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos Klobuchar (Ben Platt), a couple returning to craft the annual show––this year called Joan, Still in honor of the comatose founder.
And––oh, wait again. There are some more title cards, and with them come more of the camp’s faculty, from dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) to costumer Gigi (Owen Thiele). What we learn of them is largely predicated on––you guessed it––exposition. They don’t get to expound upon themselves or even get some talking head interviews, so what’s everyone’s deal?
They’re trying to produce Joan, Still in time without killing each other. That’s about it. And that’s fine, but Theater Camp’s issues, on the other hand, are peculiar for the type of movie it is. Directed by Gordon & Nick Lieberman and based on the 2020 short of the same name, it isn’t faking its enthusiasm. Those onscreen are clearly game, those behind the scenes too unfocused for such a simple premise. The script––by Noah Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, and Platt––is too impatient, unable to trust the chaos it aspires toward. It’s one thing for a movie about theater to tell more than it shows; it’s another for an independent film to often feel committee-made.
That feeling persists for the first hour. Theater Camp’s hyperactivity borders impenetrable for stretches, unwilling to place a stake in its ground narratively or temporally to accentuate the humor. Aside from the excess of characters, Gordon and Lieberman (and as edited by Jon Philpot) demonstrate so little variation in pacing to the point that jokes quickly become bludgeoning and one-note. The cast lifts them up as much as they can. The script, however, is simultaneously earnest while just too pleased with itself. With, ironically enough, not enough modesty to the humor. From on-the-nose gags to protracted, overedited reaction shots, Theater Camp tries to be breathless despite being airless.
In some regards it operates well enough. DP Nate Hurtsellers shoots the picture in a familiar handheld style that works decently to establish some shapelessness. At the movie’s most fluid, he and the directors toss in some background gags that help flesh out the world. It’s these moments when Theater Camp flirts with that sense of fullness it aims to achieve, almost all of which exist in the latter half. Such is when the film partially gets past trying too hard and when conflict becomes character-based, which, in turn, is when the script evolves past feeling like a series of sketches strung together. After all, the script is too unwieldy for an ensemble comedy.
Suddenly, Rebecca-Diane and Amos have something of a tiff. Their professional and artistic pursuits start to diverge and students begin functioning as people rather than punchlines. When the kids finally perform Joan, Still, the movie at last achieves the mix of drollness and histrionics it’s been pining for. But it’s too late for it to redeem the blunted attempts preceding it, and Theater Camp never gets out from a major issue: not plumbing its mockumentary conceit.
The format itself is ultimately incidental. Gordon and Lieberman don’t use their camera to interact with their characters; worse that they never allow their characters to interact with the audience. The intertitles do the talking, leaving a remove between subject and viewer its very form is meant to abolish. It plays more like a handheld-shot feature retroactively fitted to resemble a documentary in the edit bay as a shorthand to streamline characters and tension. Thus it renders itself fundamentally arbitrary, often telling but rarely showing.
Some parts work in the moment, some chuckles arrive. Yet the whole is disconnected from itself because it’s not fully established. It underwhelms because its cast exceeds the script until opening night comes, and by then Theater Camp is all but over. Perhaps the next production will be better. After all, it’s not like this one is going to send anyone to the hospital.
Theater Camp opens on July 14.