Mockumentary, not Mockery? Or, The Kids are Alright?: “Theater Camp”

Theater Camp the film
Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman
Written by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt
Featuring Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tratto, Nathan Lee Graham, Amy Sedaris

Review by Maegan Bergeron-Clearwood

Find Your Local Listing — Like virtually every movie-about-theater that has come before it, Theater Camp features an audition montage. The young performers have barely unpacked for their summer at AdirondACTS (a rundown summer camp in upstate New York) when, one by one, they file onstage to determine their fates for the next three weeks. Stage lights in their eyes and Broadway dreams in their hearts, they begin to belt.

Watching the movie last week, I braced myself for secondhand embarrassment.

And yet, against every precedent set by other films in the mockumentary genre, no embarrassment came. Instead, I found myself beaming with joy. These kids are good, I thought. Nerdy and not great at choosing audition songs, but good. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was this early audition montage that convinced me that Theater Camp is unique. Theater Camp plays with the expected mockumentary tropes, particularly in its characterizations: everyone at AdirondACTS is a caricature of a theater person, from Rebecca-Diane and Amos (Molly Gordon and Ben Platt), the overly serious co-writers of the summer’s original musical, to Glenn, the thankless stagehand with a secret dream to be in the spotlight (Noah Galvin).

The campers, too, are more or less archetypal theater nerds, but they are never the subject of mockery. Rather, the film is primarily told through the journey of the camp’s interim director, Internet bro Troy Rubinsky (Jimmy Tatro), as he learns to appreciate theater as a refuge for goofballs, queers, and outsiders of all sorts.

Of course, most people watching Theater Camp probably already know all of this (this is very much a movie by and for theater people, with nerdy sight gags and references around every corner) but it’s refreshing nonetheless to be laughing in community with, rather than in ridicule of, these loveable kids.

Theater Camp is a mockumentary, but not a mockery; at every turn, it opts for sincerity over cynicism, and as a theater teacher who just finished my own camp gig for the summer, I appreciate the validation that the kids are, in fact, alright.

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