“Acting” winner Ben Platt believes he “remembers and chooses to forget.” Theater Camp, a darkly satirical film about Gershwin’s upbringing, does both. It was written by Platt with three longtime friends, Molly Gordon (friends since childhood), Nick Lieberman (friends since high school) and his fiancée, Noah Galvin, who, like Platt, played the lead role in the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. (Gordon and Lieberman also directed the film.) These former young actors remember it all: desperate trials, flailing rejections, and a growing worry that one’s dreams of success on stage are as flimsy as airbrushed cardboard stars. But the four camp counselors who created—exaggerations of those they knew—ignored their own trauma, and now, they’re causing others. He called it Summer Stockholm Syndrome. We call their group therapy session therapy.
Our setting is the Drama Institute called AdirondACTS, as written in a hackneyed pen handwriting. Amos (Plattt) and Rebecca Diane (Gordon) met here as kids, and decades later, they continue to haunt the one place that treats them like stars. Broadway did not hint. Yet every summer, Amos and Rebecca Diane dish out their wisdom in Flexible Minds.
Young professional campers are about the same level of maturity as adults. They’re also played by great talents including Luke Islam, Alan Kim, and Bailee Bonick, the latter of whom can hold a high pitch longer than a Mosquito. Yet the kids know it’s their turn to obediently absorb their coaches’ impassioned conversations (“Peter Piper picked priority”), threats (“This will break you”) and questionable opinions (“I believe her like a French whore,” Amos whispers to a 10-year-old).
The fiasco runs through the movie without being accurately acknowledged. Here, reconnecting with the cruise ship and displaying the repertory in Saratoga Springs is the pinnacle of success that can be achieved. The adults, who include designer Gigi (Owen Thee) and dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), resent any challenge to their artistic authority. “It says here you’re allergic to polyester,” Gigi sneers. “Why? Later, when the story threatens to steer us toward that cliche—we’ve gotta put on a show to save the school!—it’s comforting to realize that most characters can’t be bothered by that plot point either. , Troy (Jimmy Tatro), one of YouTube’s financial bros who pride themselves on being “en-Troy-preneur.”
Gordon and Lieberman huffily refer to a documentary structure. In the opening minutes, the dry black-and-white headlines get into the action so much, you’d expect them to claim that Beyoncé has one of the best videos ever. Soon, the editing relaxed, the idea for the doc came out, and the movie found its beat as a series of bittersweet vaudeville sketches that reeked of Kool-Aid mixed with salt.
Like many mostly improvised films, there is a feeling that half of the story has been abandoned on the cutting room floor. The final decision hinges on a character who barely scores. Ayo Edebiri (from the Bear TV series) appears as a teacher for the first time with fake experience in fencing and running – a promising lull, but she’s left to roam the margins, hardly sharing any scenes with the rest of the cast. At one point, Galvin, playing on stage, embarks on a tour of the cafeteria sets. The scene stops at two. There is a lot that this movie wants to cover.
The actors clearly feel their characters in their bones. My favorite physical detail was how Platt’s Amos interrupted a bad rehearsal by hopping across the stage in a showy frog hop, like Kermit giving them the old dazzle. How magical, in retrospect, that show-within-a-show flop is saved when kids invest every ounce of moxie in Rebecca-Diane’s lame belts of words. Gusto can turn anything into gold.
Rated PG-13 for spicy language and one adult slumber party. Show duration: 1 hour and 34 minutes. in theatres.
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