This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: “You need to know that only 3% of people make it. The rest end up in a mental facility — or a Go Go box in Hell’s Kitchen.” Welcome to AdirondACTS, a cozy, scrappy theater camp where such nuggets of wisdom are imparted upon young thespians. Over the course of the summer, we see the minutiae of theater camp play out in a mockumentary-style film, sharply directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon (both making their feature directorial debuts).
First framed as a documentary following AdirondACTS founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), things begin to go awry when she falls into a coma — a result of “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County” — leaving former campers, best friends, and devoted instructors Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) to pick up the pieces while Joan’s chaotic son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) tries his best to keep things afloat.
AdirondACTS is rounded out by Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) as our dance instructor, Janet (Ayo Edebiri) handling stage combat, Gigi (Owen Thiele) leading costume design, and Glenn (Noah Galvin) running tech. And if that weren’t enough, we’re graced by Alan Kim as an aspiring agent and a perfect appearance from the always-welcome Patti Harrison as an opportunistic investor hoping to absorb AdirondACTS into a flashier nearby camp.
Count Me In: First and foremost, the joy of Theater Camp lies in its pitch-perfect details. The script, co-written by Platt, Gordon, Galvin, and Lieberman, is laugh-out-loud funny, rampant with hyperspecific details that would send a shudder down the spine of every person who might recognize the names Interlochen, Stagedoor Manor, or Frenchwoods. It’s a movie that could only have been written by a group of people who know how high-stakes the most local of productions can feel: It’s funny not because it’s unkind or exaggerated, but because it’s all so wildly true.
“Let’s throw some spices in there,” Platt’s Amos directs a teenager working on a scene. “A little cinnamon, a little pain, a little stepfather.” Later, working with the same camper, he notes that he’s “not really feeling how the detail of having IBS is impacting the character.” It’s perfect.
Because I Met You, I Have Been Changed (For Good): In real life, stars Platt and Gordon actually grew up together, adding another layer of believability to the story (the footage of the two in Fiddler on the Roof and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying as children is, in fact, authentic). Their rapport and intimacy is the axis on which the glittery story spins, and two terrific performances are produced as a result.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Tatro, an absolute gem of an actor, is serving the same realness audiences might remember from his turn in the deeply underrated American Vandal. His off-kilter rapport with Harrison’s Caroline, and more endearing friendship with Galvin’s Glenn, are both fantastic. Then, there are the most important performers of all — the young actors who play the campers, who give mockumentary favorites like The Office a run for their money with their reactions to the dialogue.
There’s so much heart throughout Theater Camp — it also doesn’t overstay its welcome, landing at a tight 94 minutes packed to the minute with visual gags and quick comments you don’t want to miss. “I’d believe her playing a prostitute,” Amos says during casting, speaking of an actual child. When chastised by Rebecaa-Diane, he corrects himself: “Sorry, sex worker.”
The Verdict: It was reported after its Sundance premiere that Searchlight Pictures has acquired the film, in a worldwide deal that would guarantee a theatrical release. This is genuinely great news, because while Theater Camp would undoubtedly thrive on a streaming platform, this is a film that will be the most fun in a theater full of other people who really and truly get it.
Even in a community as small as a place like AdirondACTS, where nothing about casting for Cats (Immersive) or The Crucible Jr. on the Outdoor Stage matters to anyone who isn’t there, this movie understands that for the people there, it is literally the most important thing in the world.
This movie is for the people who have suddenly doubted their decision to sing “Defying Gravity” for their middle school audition, and the people who have obsessed over how far they are from center in a kickline. It’s for someone who has ever been devastated by an understudy assignment as much as it is for those who have been thrilled to have one speaking line, and then gone on to make the very most of it.
Whenever the release date is announced for Theater Camp, know that it’s worth making a trip out to the cinema to catch it. Personally, I’ll be giving her the encore she deserves.
Where to Watch: Theater Camp premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.