Tony Award winner Ben Platt said in character, “To act is to remember to forget, to choose to forget.” Theater Camp, a sizzling mockumentary of Gershwin’s coming of age, does both. Pratt has three longtime friends, Molly Gordon (a childhood friend), Nick Lieberman (a high school friend) and, like Pratt, a lead role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen. I wrote this song with my fiancé Noah Galvin, who played it. (Gordon and Lieberman also directed the film.) These former youth performers remember it all: frantic auditions, whimsical rejections, and dreams of stage success spray-painted. Akatsuki’s anxiety about being as flimsy as a cardboard star. But the camp counselors they created—an exaggeration of counselors they know—ignore the trauma they endured and are now inflicting on others. Call it Summer Stockholm Syndrome. And call their group therapy session a treat.
Our setting is a theater laboratory named AdirondACTS, scribbled in sticky crayon font. Amos (Pratt) and Rebecca Diane (Gordon) met here as kids, and decades later they continue to haunt the only place that treats them like superstars. Broadway hasn’t invited me yet. Yet every summer, Amos and Rebecca Diane instill wisdom into flexible minds.
Career-minded young campers have roughly the same maturity levels as adults. It has also been performed by such great talents as Luke Islam, Alan Kim and Bailey Bonic, the latter of whom can sustain the high notes longer than the gnat’s lifespan. Still, they were met with coach pep talks (“Peter Piper chose his priorities”), threats (“This breaks my heart”), and questionable remarks (“I called her a French whore.”). We know that it is our role to obediently absorb what we believe in.” Amos is the whispering voice of a 10-year-old boy with pigtails).
Failures float in the film and are stubbornly unacknowledged. Here, cruise ship calls and repertory shows in Saratoga Springs represent the pinnacle of success that can be achieved. Adults, including costume designer Gigi (Owen Seale) and dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), resent any challenge to their artistic authority. “It says I’m allergic to polyester,” Gigi haggles to the camper. “why? ’ Then when the story almost leads us to that most corny cliche, we have to put on a show to save the school! I’m relieved to know it wasn’t. They’re creative, baby. Capitalism is for hunks like Troy (Jimmy Tatro), the owner’s son. Troy is his YouTube financial companion who boasts of being a “Trojan Entrepreneur”.
Gordon and Lieberman subtly gesture the structure of the documentary. In the opening minutes, dry black-and-white intertitles frequently interrupt the action, making you wonder if you’re expecting Beyoncé’s video to claim he’s one of the greatest videos of all time. Shortly after, the editing loosens up, the Doctor’s conceit fades, and the film finds its rhythm in a series of wickedly funny vaudeville sketches, like Kool-Aid mixed with salt.
As with many films that are mostly improvised, there is a feeling that half the story is abandoned on the editing room floor. A belated determination rests on a largely unregistered character. Ayo Edebiri (from the TV series “The Bear”) appears as a novice teacher with false experience in jousting and juggling. It’s a promising gag, but she wanders in the corner, sharing few scenes with the rest of the cast. On one occasion, Galvin plays a shy stagehand and embarks on a tour of cafeteria factions. The scene stops at 2:00. There are too many things I want to cover in this movie.
Clearly, the actors feel their characters to the core. The physical detail I liked the most was the way Pratt’s Amos punctuates a bad rehearsal by leaping onto the stage with a flashy frog leap, as if Kermit were to give them an old-school frantic glare . How magical it is then that this show-within-a-show predicament is saved by the kids committing themselves to singing Rebecca Diane’s lame lyrics. Gusto can turn anything into gold.
PG-13 designation for spicy language and one adult pajama party. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. at the theater.