Fox Searchlight Spent $8 Million on Sarah Gordon and Ben Platt’s Theater Camp, But Was It Worth the Price?
PLOT: The counselors at a theater camp try to save it from foreclosure when its beloved founder falls into a coma.
REVIEW: theater camp comes from the writer-director duo of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, with Gordon starring alongside co-stars and co-writers Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. A loving homage to an experience that clearly meant a lot to them, the film opens with footage of a young Platt and Gordon acting their hearts out on stage as children. If you’re a theater lover this is undoubtedly for you, but it lacks the hilarity and hook to justify the reported $8 million Fox Searchlight spent on it at this year’s Sundance. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s not particularly fun.
The big problem is that the film revolves around the adults in the camp, who are a lot less interesting than the kids themselves, who are all incredibly talented. A great movie needs to be made about this group, but they all need their own fleshed out, fleshed out story. Instead, we have the same old recycled lot where a middle-class summer camp is in danger of being taken over by the elite summer camp next door while finance vultures circle the camp, waiting for it to fail. Even that (admittedly weak) storyline is abandoned, with too much time devoted to Gordon and Platt, who play two dependent best friends who haven’t grown up.
We’re meant to find them compelling, and both are talented performers, but their roles are the least interesting of the film. They are meant to be devoted advisors, but neither essentially takes the lead in the storyline in which they must save the camp. Both are portrayed as too self-centered to care. Characters like this are fine, but why are they the main characters? I wanted to see more of Ayo Edibiri (from The Bear) as the small town dweller who comes to work at the camp and doesn’t know anything about theater. Or Patti Harrison, the film’s “big villain”, one of the bankers who wants to close the camp but suggests a certain vulnerability in her performance. Most notably, she has sweet chemistry with Jimmy Tatro, who plays the “crypto brother” son of the camp’s founder (Amy Sedaris), who hatches various schemes to save the camp. He and Harrison could have been the leads as they could have had the most moving arcs. In contrast, Gordon’s and (particularly) Platt’s characters come across as whiny and self-absorbed, which is meant to be funny but often fizzles out. The film takes on the trendy “mockumentary” style, but it feels like both are trying to be the wacky “Michael Scott” character, but the film badly needs a center to ground things.
The guy that this center could have been is Noah Galvin who plays the camp’s technical director and is also the most talented actor. His character is said to lack confidence and his arc could have been worked out more. He provides the film’s best act in the big climax, in which, in a justifiably hilarious moment, a bunch of kids act out Studio 54’s excesses on stage.
However, the film was screened here at the Eccles Theater (the festival’s largest venue) to a widely receptive audience, with the cast apparently receiving a rare curtain call following the Q&A. Many people liked it very much. Although it didn’t work for me, the film could make a lot of people happy once Searchlight releases it. Still, I’d expect it to do better in streaming than in theaters.