Sundance Review: Mockumentary “Theater Camp” Is Hilarious and Heartfelt
Written by: Hannah Tran | January 29th, 2023
Theater Camp (Molly Gordon/Nick Lieberman, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
It’s a weird feeling to be in the middle of watching a movie for the first time and already get the sense that it’s destined to be a cult classic, but that’s exactly what I felt when watching the co-directorial debut of Nick Lieberman and Booksmart actress Molly Gordon’s Theater Camp. Spotlighting the story of a financially ruinous theater camp’s fight to stay afloat following the unfortunate seizure of their beloved camp director and her replacement by her annoying “tech-bro” son, Theater Camp is a short and simple comedy that oozes a surprising amount of charm.
This charm is thanks almost entirely to its pitch-perfect cast, which is led by a wonderfully absurd performance by Gordon, herself, as one of the camp’s eccentric teachers. Between her and American Vandal’s Jimmy Tatro in the role of the director’s son, Theater Camp is filled with genuinely funny one-liners and endless histrionics. In supporting roles, Noah Galvin, Patti Harrison, and Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt all give more centered, but equally impressive performances that perfectly round out the cast.
Galvin and Platt also serve as co-writers with Lieberman and Gordon, and what seems to make both the direction and the screenplay work so well is that they’re made by a group that has not only been formed by their sincere love for theater but who are also at a point where they are unafraid to make fun of themselves. The cruel insanity and manipulation that lurks behind theater camp-camaraderie is treated with appropriately mean humor, but the genuine friendship and love that comes from those same relationships is also given its due sentimentality.
This nostalgic sentiment is felt in the lush, warm tones created by cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers (I Used to Go Here), which makes for a pleasant retreat from the typical haphazard mockumentary style. The editing and camerawork also match the silly overarching tone of the film. While otherwise technically proficient, however, Theater Camp does fail in its mockumentary premise. The aesthetic is present mainly in the first act and is largely forgotten by the end. Moreover, the jokes are far stronger in the first and final thirty minutes, but the humor unfortunately wanders off course somewhere in the middle.
The climax of the film, however, manages to pull it back together with a number of unforgettably funny musical numbers, ending on one that is as comic as it is genuinely moving. Lieberman and Gordon perfectly balance the bitter and sweet and, whether you were a theater kid or not, you’ll feel like you’re part of that very sacred circle of self-identified outcasts.