Among the low-hanging fruits of satire, sleepaway theater camps would dangle about as low as social-media influencers and Def Leppard cover bands.
But “Theater Camp,” a new comedy by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, energetically wades into the kind of mockumentary territory Christopher Guest would approve of. The spirit of “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman” is often present, for better and worse, in Gordon and Lieberman’s film, which first debuted at Sundance earlier this year.
But theirs is a much more earnest, loving lampoon, made by a group of friends with obvious affection for musical theater. Gordon and Lieberman co-wrote the script with Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, expanding their 2020 18-minute short. The result is something too tame for rich parody, but knowing enough to be kind of sweet. “Theater Camp,” at least, has the song and dance part down pat.
The upstate New York camp of AdirondACTS has been pluckily kept running for years by its founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris). She’s intended to be the main character of a documentary on the camp. But in the opening moments of the film, while Joan and manager Rita (Caroline Aaron) are out recruiting campers, she’s knocked into a coma by strobe lights in a middle school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
It’s a funny enough gag but a crushing blow to the film. Taking Amy Sedaris off screen in a mockumentary that might have starred her is like killing Fred Astaire off in the first number. You just don’t do it. So who are our characters instead? Joan’s son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), comes in to run the camp. He’s pretty much their worst nightmare: a social media-promoting finance bro who always avoided his mother’s camp because, he says, he was busy doing “dope (expletive)” instead.
When Troy opens a new summer season, plenty of eyerolls follow — especially from Amos (Platt), the head of drama, and his close friend and collaborator Rebecca-Diane (Gordon). They nevertheless forge ahead with the summer’s programs, including “The Crucible Jr.,” an “immersive” “Cats” and their original piece, “Joan, Still.”
Life at the camp gets underway while the threat of foreclosure lurks and a more well-to-do rival camp looks to take over. The inside jokes fly fast and frequent. There’s a group of finger-snapping “Fosse kids,” a designated “Meryl Day,” bedtime stories where the villain is non-union and exaggerated stakes on stage. “Joan, Still” is said to be such an ambitious work of theater that Amos promises its child cast: “This will break you.”
All of this clever but too expected to be especially funny. The movie, the directorial debut for Gordon and Lieberman, loosely bounces between a large cast of characters, who know their parts well — maybe too well. They include the dancing instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), the costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele) and Galvin’s tech director with secret dreams of performing. One notable standout is “The Bear” breakout Ayo Edebiri as a local hire who lied on her resume; her scenes have a lively unpredictability.
But if “Theater Camp” struggles to find its footing, “Joan, Still” leads it to a surprisingly terrific finale. By then, Tatro has turned his one-note caricature into an endearing ally. And the kids — all of them legit performers who are mostly relegated to the background for much of the film — take center stage. “Theater Camp” might have worked better with a “Meatballs”-style structure, focusing on a camper and a counselor. But it knows how to put on a show. With songs written by the screenwriters and Mark Sonnenblick, “Theater Camp” in the end hits just the right note between satire and sincere. JAKE COYLE, MDT/AP Film Writer