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Child's Play

Searchlight Pictures

Theater Camp (2023)

A mockumentary chronicling the 3-week-long AdirondActs summer camp for drama kids, Sundance entry “Theater Camp” immediately brings to mind cult favorites like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Wet Hot American Summer.” Naturally, the film brings the premise up to date: Crypto-bro-esque vlogger Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes the reins after the founder, his mother, Joan (Amy Sedaris), suffers a seizure from a strobe light during a middle school play and becomes comatose. To make matters worse, AdirondActs is on the brink of bankruptcy; Caroline (Patti Harrison), a venture capitalist type, sees this as an opportunity to help expand a neighboring camp. But in spite of these signs of the Millennial times, the film inexplicably has the look of 1970s archival footage from the documentary “Crip Camp.”

Based on a 2020 short by the same team of creatives, “Theater Camp” doesn’t strike as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of “Abbott Elementary.” But maybe it should have taken note of what makes the Quinta Brunson TV series such a charming crowd pleaser. While the younger teaching staff at Abbott is embarrassing at times, the equally cringy counselors at AdirondActs just seem conceited and to lack a sense of earnestness, as if narcissism is par for the course in the world of dramatic arts. Some of the film’s jokes are wholly inappropriate, such as whether a 10-year-old girl auditioning with a scene from “Les Misérables” is believable as a French prostitute.

Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) collaborate on an original musical each year, but this time they have a falling out. Unfortunately, they sort of emerge as the de facto main characters here, since Troy seemingly lacks a will or a way. The messy passive-aggression between Amos and Rebecca-Diane aside, Amos also actively undermines the overachieving Darla (Kyndra Sanchez) like Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister in “Election.” The Alexander Payne movie works as a satirical allegory, which is clearly not the aim of “Theater Camp.” While these self-absorbed nobodies can be humorous, they are no fun to be around for a long stretch.

The screenplay by Noah Galvin, Ms. Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Mr. Platt, prefers telling over showing, overly relying on title cards to connect the dots. Ms. Gordon and Mr. Lieberman, who also direct, don’t take full advantage of mockumentary tropes such as confessionals, fourth-wall breakages and rapid swipes like “Abbott” does. They have, however, devised a pretty rousing finale that salvages the film. In the end, “Theater Camp” does celebrate the power of dramatic arts in spite of the ineptitude of its motley crew of characters.


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