Where can you see emotions going through ups and downs in real-time and in full view, given full attention by a spotlight? Yes, only in the theater. However, the new movie Theater Camp, directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, goes far beyond just the making of a stage production. The immediacy of the art form, with absolutely no filter between the artist and the audience, has fascinated me since my childhood. This new film is a roller coaster ride, showing behind the scenes what goes into creating engaging stage productions. It could have taken several styles to deftly craft the narrative on screen, but the directorial choice of making it a mockumentary works for the most part. In the part where it doesn’t work, it leaves an overcooked quality to the story, giving the impression that the jokes were pushed beyond their limits. But overall, the film drives its message home in the manner it wanted it to.
The story begins by telling us that a documentary about the theater camp by the name of ‘AdirondACTS’ is being shot on campus, and we are immediately plunged into the everyday affairs of the people in charge. There is Joan Rubinsky, the camp’s founder, a middle-aged woman with the enthusiasm of a child to keep the camp running, even though money always seems to be an issue. Then there are several teachers, most notably Amos Klobuchar and Rebecca Diane, who have been teaching there for a decade. The children come in with the aim of making friends and learning their craft, but most importantly, they collaborate to prepare a thrilling stage production within the stipulated time. Tragedy strikes when Joan suffers a stroke from a strobe light while watching a production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Troy, her son, who seems to know nothing about the world except cryptocurrency and recording videos on his GoPro, comes in to sort out the affairs at the camp and keep it running in Joan’s absence. The children don’t know about the camp’s financial duress, and soon, the teachers, too, begin to have their own issues, some of which deal with their own ambitions and unwillingness to accept their place in the camp.
The stage is set for a sentimental drama, but the mockumentary style ensures that comedy is always warranted in each scene. It seems like directors Molly and Nick were going for a calculated effect rather than reaching for a style organically, feeling that the film required this exact form as it best complimented the content. At the beginning of the film, the mockumentary looks tiring, with the placards coming in and delivering the extra information that one needed to know about the plot. But later, the style seems to vanish or at least doesn’t call attention to itself, and none of the characters insist on breaking the fourth wall.
At one time, there was a strange feeling I got that I was in a Woody Allen film, where characters are always doing something—running around or dealing with props—while talking about the important details that matter to them. It just needed a jazz score to completely morph into that world. The characters in the film often seem too excited about the filmmaking, not exactly sure how to translate their emotions. After all, the ‘documentary’ crew could only shoot the scenes as if filming real life. The snappy dialogue, written by Noah Galvin and Ben Platt in collaboration with the directors, tries to add humor that goes well with the mockumentary style but is too obvious in some places. The dialogue never quite loses its written quality and, hence, doesn’t flow too well from the actors. But as time passes and we are immersed in the world of this theater camp, the narrative is able to take over and cover up most of the hiccups in the writing department.
The film is infused with warmth and exuberance by the peppy characters. The theater camp stood for diversity and acceptance, and that is exactly what the film does. It accepts its flaws and hides them pretty well, to the greatest extent. The Spinal Tap style in the beginning of the movie overemphasizes the comedic elements of the movie but is nicely balanced by the real-life conflicts of the characters in the second half. It is often said that those who can do do, while those who can’t teach. Theater Camp does have a philosophy of ‘doing vs. teaching’ that may only be fully understood by theater practitioners. As for the rest, the plot of saving the camps from hostile takeovers might take care of the demands for some twists and turns required to keep them engaged. But ultimately, the film depended a lot on humor, and this is where it seemed a bit lacking. The film wanted to convey jokes whose punchlines were not as funny or thought-provoking as they would have liked.
People come to the theater not knowing what the crew has been through to put on the production. Theater makes us good, as the saying goes, and the film captures this ‘goodness’ on screen. Theater Camp, becomes a story of outcasts who find joy in a place where they can express themselves. The performance by the kids is fantastic, and they are truly wonderful performers. Each and every kid in the cast brings something unique to the table, and the story ensures that their arcs are given a fulfilling conclusion. The mockumentary style may have been a choice to elevate the comedy. It doesn’t do so in most parts, but it gives an interesting perspective on how to make low-budget filmmaking exciting. Molly Gordon, the director, who also played Rebecca-Diane in the film, is brilliant, as is Ben Platt, who plays Amos. Both of them have a great bond, which translates exceptionally well on screen. Watch the film if you are a theater lover or a budding thespian. It covers all aspects of the theater with lighthearted humor. So if you’re getting a bit too serious in life, the film might be for you. It might remind you that when everything is said and done, it’s all ultimately a play!