Review by Sean Boelman
Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Alexander Bello, Kyndra Sanchez, Bailee Bonick, Quinn Titcomb, Madisen Marie Lora, Donovan Colan and Luke Islam appear in a still from Theater Camp by Molly Goron and Nick Lieberman, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
A film about theater nerds starring Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in the hands of Molly Gordon (Booksmart) and her filmmaking partner Nick Lieberman, it turns into one of the most entertaining movies of this year’s Sundance. A blast from start to finish — especially for those who were theater kids growing up — Theater Camp may be conventional, but it’s exactly what it sets out to be.
The film follows the campers and staff of a rundown theater camp as they struggle to keep the lights on when their beloved founder ends up in a coma right before the term begins. An expansion of Gordon and Lieberman’s short of the same name, Theater Camp is a love letter to the communities of outcasts that are theater kids.
This is a very wholesome movie, and there are some laughs that will have viewers absolutely rolling. It’s never mean-spirited, but the film has some jokes that are pointing fingers at some of the common pratfalls of theater kid culture in a way that will perfectly tap into viewers’ nostalgia without feeling overly sentimental.
The movie follows a very standard mockumentary style a la Christopher Guest, but there’s a dynamic, energetic, and playful quality to it that could serve to reinvigorate the genre. The film isn’t overly self-aware like something like The Office, instead being focused on telling a great story first and foremost.
Shockingly, the movie contains some original songs that are pretty wonderful. It’s hilarious that this film’s original songs, meant to parody a summer camp original musical, are better than some of the songs that got nominated for the Oscar this year. The comedy song “Women Cannot Read” is especially a banger.
One noticeable area in which the movie does come up short is its character development. The campers are rather archetypal, and for a film that is literally about inspiring future generations of people to pursue the arts, it’s frustrating that you’d be hard-pressed to remember even one of the kids’ names. Even the counselors, while given more fleshed out personalities, are rather generic.
That being said, the movie’s ensemble is so extraordinary that the film feels tremendously lived in despite the weak character development. All of the young actors that play the campers are extremely talented and have fabulous voices. And perhaps most surprising is that Gordon and Lieberman are able to get strong, unexpectedly nuanced performances out of typically one-note actors like Ben Platt and Jimmy Tatro.
Theater Camp is significantly better than it has any right to be. It’s not a particularly weighty or challenging movie, but in terms of pure entertainment value, there are very few comedies that have nailed this quite so well in recent memory.
Theater Camp is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.