Theater Camp is a kind of film we haven’t seen much of recently: a very, very funny one. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s feature about a summer getaway for young aspiring thesps isn’t an action comedy, or horror comedy, or superhero film with jokes, or strung-out gross-out sketch about talking dogs. It’s just a comedy comedy. It is also the film that has made me laugh by far the most – at times so helplessly I slid out of my seat – since the end of the pandemic at least.
Directors Gordon and Lieberman are working in the same tradition as the great Christopher Guest improvised mockumentaries, like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. And what those films did respectively for dog fanciers and the American folk music scene, theirs does for children’s drama clubs – that is, it lampoons them into the dirt, but with such boundless and undisguised affection, it leaves you loving them (and the film) all the more for it.
Gordon and the Broadway actor Ben Platt star as Rebecca-Diane and Amos, two former attendees who made the switch to camp counsellors at some point in early adulthood. The pair are invested in their young charges’ work to a near-crazed degree, but also the camp itself, which has clearly been so formative that neither can quite bring themselves to leave it.
As well as passing on their questionable expertise, the two are writing and directing this summer’s big show: a musical tribute to the camp’s founder, Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), who is languishing in a coma while her business vlogger (that is, unemployed) son Troy, played by Jimmy Tatro, haplessly attempts to keep the ramshackle place off its knees.
Like the Guest films, Theater Camp’s comedy springs entirely from personality: the jokes aren’t really quotable because they depend on you knowing who’s making them to work. (An example: the way Platt solemnly holds up his hand to stop the children applauding after Gordon lousily improvises a potential closing number for the show almost made me hyperventilate.)
The young campers themselves are total sweethearts – the mockumentary format cleverly undercuts the necessary stage-school pizzazz – while every adult character is a joy; somehow both instantly recognisable and a never-before-seen variety of bananas.
Numerous comic plot threads are juggled throughout, then nimbly plaited during the climactic performance of the campers’ original musical, Joan, Still. And after all the preceding tenderising laughter, the emotional punches this sequence lands are considerable. “Camp isn’t home,” the children warble as one, “but is it, kind of? Kind of, it is – I think it kind of is.” After 90 minutes with them, you might find yourself with a fond tear trembling on your cheek, knowing exactly what they mean.
On Disney+ now