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Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

We’ve seen it before, but have we laughed this hard?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

How much does a movie need to reinvent before it can be considered good? 

Molly Gordon’s directorial debut “Theatre Camp” does not take risks. It re-hashes a lot of past comedic tropes and structures — it reinvents the wheel. But it will have you rotating with laughter. The film is a frantic new comedy about two eccentric drama instructors—played by Ben Platt and Molly Gordon—attempting to save a schlumpy theater camp from corporate takeover and destruction. The cast is hilarious. Jimmy Tatro kills as an uncomplicated wanna-be tech influencer, while Noah Galvin truly Performs (with a capital p) as the beleaguered production manager. 

This film is delightfully silly—it’s like watching Gordon and Platt frolic around in a field, full of surprising humor, and very few misses—though it is guilty of missed opportunities with underutilizing their tremendous cast. Ayo Edebri shines as a millennial who lied on their resume about their ability to teach stage combat, but she is not given enough screen time to establish a real presence in the film. Nathan Lee Graham executes his role as an old diva choreography instructor with practiced precision, but he is not given the opportunity to do more than reminisce about his days in the city at the seance and yell strange choreographic directions at his students . Frustratingly, their Black cast members—Ayo Edebri, Owen Thiele, and Nathan Lee Graham—do not have real narrative arcs in the film, compared to Gordon, Platt, or Tatro. 

Many critics’ main gripe with this film is that we’ve seen things like it before. As Christy Lemire observed for Roger Ebert, it takes on similar structures and conventions of older classics such as the mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman” or the 2003 teen indie film “Camp.” While the “Guffman” comparison feels apt, the comparison to the cheesy teen film “Camp” feels strange. “Camp” has none of the bite of the humor that “Theatre Camp” has. 

Nonetheless Lemire’s critique remains true—this film borrows significantly from what came before, even in the ways it utilizes its immensely talented cast. In the 2023 Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Ayo Edebri commented that when she began her career in Hollywood, she had resigned herself to playing millennial assistants. Her role in “Theatre Camp” as a clueless millennial grifter does not stray far from her initial prediction, and would have benefited from further development. 

Moreover, the film could have been more inventive if it had not typecast its actors so blatantly. Ben Platt has played a self-serious theater kid since he emerged from the womb. Jimmy Tatro has played the bumbling douchebag before in “American Vandal” and “The Real Bros of Simi Valley.”

But who really can deny a role one is born to play? Would not casting Tatro as a douchebag be, in some respects, an indictment against the gifts God gave him? Plus, even in its type casting and stereotypical characterizations, the  film adds new flavors of tried and true comedic formulas in how these stereotypes are mixed together. For instance, Jimmy Tatro’s interactions with Patti Harrison, who played the ruthless corporate head of an opposing camp, were some of the funniest moments of the film and feel like something we’ve never seen before. More of these strange moments would have helped the film have more of its own ground to stand on. 

The biggest issue with the film is not to do with its repeating of formula, but rather, with its lack of clear structure. Even as it stands upon the shoulders of past mockumentary and theater camp ouvres, it lacks the completeness and heart to feel like a full film on its own. Supporting characters fall by the wayside, never colliding into a satisfying end. Edebri’s character Janet Walsh, for instance, has a memorable interaction near the end of the film with one of the campers who aspires to be the first child agent (Alan Kim from “Minari”). Though the scene is hilarious to watch, it also feels like a lost opportunity. 

In this respect, “Theatre Camp” feels more like a long version of the web-series sketch it was based on than it does a movie. Its greatest failing lies in the gaps in who it chose to develop as characters. But this does not mean the film fails as a movie, or that it isn’t good. 

In fact, I’m willing to discount all of its structural issues for the sake of its humor. It is so rare that a new comedy makes me laugh these days. Don’t get me wrong—“Barbie” and “No Hard Feelings” made me chortle every now and then. But neither held me in the palm of their hand the way “Theatre Camp” did. This film did not give me time to breathe in between Patti Harrison’s commentary of the play, Molly Gordon’s dramatic intervention when she finds a camper using a tear stick, and Owen Thiele’s condemnation of the camper that chose to narc on him giving them ear piercings. 

This summer, we’ve seen a whole slate of films that have, in some form or another, tried to innovate beyond what was expected of them. The “Barbie” film performed the insane balancing act of pleasing corporate masters, advancing watered down feminist dogma, and being a funny film to boot. But not all comedy films need a corporate or social purpose. Some comedy films can coast on the fact that they’re simply hilarious. 

I feel we often overlook how rare it is for a film to be funny.  Of course, in our current climate—in which movie tickets cost upwards of $15—it makes sense that we bank on our films doing more than just making us laugh. But in the same respect, we often overlook how hard it is to be brought to tears by a film in a fun way.

So, how much does a movie need to reinvent before it can be good? In my opinion, very little, if it can make you giggle.

This article was produced for HorizonMass, the independent, student-driven, news outlet of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and is syndicated by BINJ’s MassWire news service.

Sabine Ollivier-Yamin is a HorizonMass associate editor and reporter. She is a Boston based arts and culture writer interested in the comedy beat. Ollivier-Yamin has written for the Daily Free Press, the Bunion, Gold Comedy, and the Core Journal. She is also a great pedestrian, she always pays attention to street signs.

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