In the summer camp genre, it can be hard to differentiate yourself. It is a surprisingly crowded setting that has been stretched in seemingly every direction. Slapstick, slasher, feel-good, musical, raunchy and non-raunchy romance, the list goes on. “Theater Camp” manages to stand out.
“Theater Camp” is a mockumentary-style depiction of a small performing arts summer camp, called Camp AdirondACTS, that is on the brink of bankruptcy. It takes place during the summer when the head of camp is in the hospital and her non-theater-inclined son is forced to take over. The movie has a notably small cast, likely due to its low budget, but it gives the movie, which was filmed in 2022, a 2020 feel. This is a detriment to the movie at large. An important aspect of any summer camp movie is the busyness—the constant action and noise in the background. Even a camp that is supposed to have very little money needs to feel filled out. Otherwise, it looks like an after-school club. It’s too intimate. Everyone knows everyone too well and all the kids start to feel like they have one interest and belong in one clique. Summer camp is not like that. Summer camps—even special performing arts summer camps—are loud and chaotic and filled with people who have never spoken to one another. This movie misses that.
What the small cast does allow “Theater Camp” is a high standard for talent. I cannot think of another movie with this amount of skill present in an authentically 10-15-year-old cast. The camp staff is filled with established actors with long histories in comedy and musical theater, but they are overshadowed by the incredible cast of campers, who shine in their theatrical abilities but also in their comic timing and delivery. This is a movie that relies on improv and an extremely dry sense of humor, and the child actors excelled.
As is usual in sleepaway camp movies, the campers are without a doubt the most interesting and entertaining part. The worst parts of “Theater Camp” were the interpersonal dramas between the camp staff. Which is to say the worst part of “Theater Camp” was the plot. These attempts at plot were underdeveloped and never properly resolved. The begrudging son who is managing the camp only falls in love with camp within the last twenty minutes of the movie, and it is not a gradual or well-earned shift. It is blunt and forced and he doesn’t even kiss the character who helped him get there. The other main drama of the movie, a falling out between two long-time teachers, is similarly hackneyed and stuck right at the end of the movie.
The characters in “Theater Camp” are great. While the stereotypes being played on were occasionally heavyhanded, every character had a lot to work with comedically and all the actors fit their roles well. But what would have better suited this movie is more camp-focused plots and resolutions. Or to just focus on the mundane. Cut out all adult drama. Focus on saving the camp from bankruptcy and some silly drama between campers. It came as no surprise that three of the protagonists in “Theater Camp” also wrote the movie. They set an accurate, wholesome and funny atmosphere and then undercut it by assuming the characters they played were a little more interesting than they actually were.
The other way this movie undercuts itself is through its mockumentary style. The documentary format serves to elevate a handful of jokes and saves the movie a lot of time on exposition, but from the onset, it always felt unnecessary. This story is very simple and could be even simpler. It does not need a stylistic crutch to explain what’s going on or to make itself stand out amongst the hordes of summer camp movies. “Theater Camp” is a well-made movie full of talent that authentically captures a tiny world. I don’t know why the writers felt that was not enough to make a great movie.
Many people will not enjoy “Theater Camp.” A lot of viewers will like it. I predict for a handful of people, it will become one of their favorite movies (a strange trend in summer camp movies is their cult classic status, “Wet Hot American Summer,” “American Pie 2” and “Sleepaway Camp” all have small but dedicated followings), but a movie as dry and of its time as this one will bore and annoy plenty of audiences. So while I recommend anyone give it a try, find it on a streaming service so you don’t waste your money when you turn it off 20 minutes in.