This Sidesplitting Comedy Can Rub Elbows With The Best Mockumentaries [Sundance]

Plenty of laughs come from Troy’s inadequacy and inexperience, as he simply doesn’t have a grasp on the vibe of theater camp. Hell, he doesn’t really understand theater at all, but he certainly perks up when one kid, who is nervous about coming out as straight to his gay dads, performs a rendition of Post Malone’s “Better Now” during auditions.

There’s even more hilarity to be found in the ongoing theatricality of the camp itself, where everyone takes themselves entirely too seriously in a fashion that only theater kids can. That includes the skilled assembly of aspiring child and teen stars who are attending the camp. These precocious kids don’t miss a beat alongside their adult co-stars, which is even more impressive considering how much improvisation was done for this movie. Whether it’s Luke Islam (“The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers”) refusing to have his “Defying Gravity” audition finale upstaged by behind-the-scenes shenanigans, or young Bailee Bonick catching the disappointment of Amos and Rebecca-Diane for using a tear stick to add genuine waterworks to an emotional rehearsal, the child stars of this movie are undeniably stellar. Young Alan Kim (of “Minari”) in particular has a couple scene-stealing moments, as he aspires to be a fast-talking entertainment agent who is always on the phone. It’s really not fair for kids to be this talented at such a young age.

What makes “Theater Camp” work so well, other than the amazing ensemble cast that won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble, are the filmmakers behind it, and they just so happen to be part of the cast too. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman adapted their own short film of the same name into a feature, and it’s clear that they have a burning passion and genuine love for theater and all the silliness that comes with it. That’s why they’re able to lampoon it so confidently, complete with plenty of gags that feel directly inspired by the extensive stage experiences of Ben Platt and Noah Galvin as co-writers (and they’re also newly engaged). The mockumentary framework also allows for a great little collection of funny moments that are “caught” by the camera in an admirably genuine fashion. Furthermore, you will inevitably see many lines from this movie turned into gifs all over social media, though it never feels like that’s intentional. Leave that to Netflix. 

But despite having so much to like, “Theater Camp” has a little bit of trouble sustaining its runtime, even at a breezy 94 minutes (including credits). There are a few too many dialogue-free montages that are clearly meant to take up space rather than add anything significant to the overall movie, even if they do include a handful of great physical gags. Thankfully, it all comes together in the end.

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