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Finding Your Purpose at 'Theater Camp' (2023)/Directed by Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman/Grade: B-

source: Searchlight Pictures

Theater Camp plays like a project made by shy theater kids, for shy theater kids, which is often to both its benefit and detriment. It's warm-hearted, affectionately written, well-acted, but never quite reaches the side-splitting heights a comedy like this could achieve. It's like the film itself is just ready to burst at the seams with something outrageous, but constantly represses itself instead. It's quite the frustrating experience.

The film is structured in the 'mock-umentary' style that titles like This is Spinal Tap (1984) made famous. Best friends Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) are the respective Music and Drama teachers at Adirond Acts, a rundown camp in upstate New York where they've been for eleven years. Having first met as attendees when they were children, the two are inseparable. When founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, Rebecca-Diane and Amos take it upon themselves to make a show about her life for the theater's big summer play. As they work with the kids to make this all come together, and Joan's dimwitted son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) struggles to raise enough funds to keep the place going, Rebecca-Diane and Amos gradually realize they might be headed in different directions in life.

Where Theater Camp most often shines is in how the observatory, documentary-like style captures the subtle nuances of Rebecca-Diane and Amos' friendship. Co-director/leading lady Molly Gordon and Ben Platt make these two characters' passion as believable as any real-life theater kids you've ever met. Additionally, the cinematography by Nate Hurtsellers knows just which angles and movements to use to capture their emotional journeys at each moment. It's a poignant, slyly funny core relationship for the film to have.

That heartfelt, nuanced depiction of camp life in the script, performances and camerawork also extends to the fellow employees and the kids at Adirond Acts. As we watch these characters struggle with the technicals of the production, or work their butts off on the dance choreography and vocals, you can really feel their combined passion and stress over what they do. Really, more than anything, Theater Camp is a tribute to the weird kids who don't fit in, who need a place to belong, and how places like Adirond Acts fill that hole.

source: Searchlight Pictures

Where the film really falters is in its comedy. Theater Camp tries to grow its humor from the various encounters of everyday life, making it seem very naturalistic. But at the same time, it wants to be super verbally witty, in a way that only a movie could be. Both of these ambitions wage a war with one another throughout the 95-minute runtime, and as a result, I got a lot of little chuckles, but no big guffaws.

In addition, the story felt incredibly unfocused. While Amos and Rebecca-Diane's turbulent friendship is the center of everything, the whole thing just wanders all over the place with the other characters, the other subplots, to where I almost forgot about them. If editor Jon Philpot had focused more tightly on these two leads' growing apart, I think it would've hit harder.

I also felt like the last act went on for too long. When we see the final product of this camp's big play, it just drags and drags and drags. Only towards its very end did the play- and the finale of the movie itself- really hit me in the feels, hitting home the themes about friendship and belonging that the filmmakers sought to enforce.

In the end, Theater Camp isn't anything groundbreaking. I didn't belly-laugh at any point, nor did I connect with the characters or story. If you are or were a theater kid, you will probably find a lot to love in this. However, I know I won't return to Adirond Acts anytime soon.

You can rent or buy the film here:

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