Producers: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Ben Platt   Directors: Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman   Screenplay: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Ben Platt   Cast: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick, Kyndra Sanchez, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs, David Rasche and Quinn Titcomb   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C+

The key to a really good mockumentary, as Christopher Guest and his company of master improvisers repeatedly proved in theirs, is not just to have an idea of what to spoof, but to give the material your contributors have come up with shape and rhythm.  “Theater Camp” has a subject, all right—an obsessive devotion to the stage on the part of not only young “theatre geeks” whose parents fork over tuition money for live-in summer workshops but, even more, the never-was souls who live out the remnants of their dreams of Broadway glory as teachers at them.  But until a “let’s put on a show” finale, it’s pretty much a helter-skelter, hyperactive movie in which the bits that don’t register outnumber the ones that do. 

The setting is the self-explanatory Camp AdirondACTS, which founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) and her loyal manager Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron) have kept afloat over the years by scraping together donations and searching out likely enrollees.  But the place’s future is suddenly in doubt; the bank is threatening foreclosure, and Caroline Krauss (Patti Harrison), who runs a posh nearby rival called Camp Lakeside, is ready to swoop in, buy the land, and tear the place down at a moment’s notice.  What a time for Joan to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma while on a recruitment-and-fundraising drive; the cause is the strobe lighting in a middle school production of “Bye Birdie” she and Rita are taking in.  That leaves her doofus son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), dude-ish slacker who’s a financial wizard only in his own mind, in charge.

To save money Troy has pink-slipped many of the teachers and hired Janet Walch (Ayo Edebiri), whose résumé is so loaded with lies that only a blithering idiot like him wouldn’t notice, to handle all their jobs.  But there remain long-timers on the staff, like ultra-critical costume designer Gigi Charbonier (Owen Thiele) and oddball dance instructor Clive DeWitt (Nathan Lee Graham)—let’s just say they’re about as subtle as Roger De Bris and Carmen Ghia were in “The Producers.”  Another staple is put-upon stage manager and general gofer Glenn Winthrop (Noah Galvin).

The most important holdovers, though, are best friends Amos (Ben Platt), the drama teacher, and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), the music teacher.  They met at the camp at kids and have been bonded ever since (as collaborators, not a romantic couple), even having not gotten into Juilliard together; they call themselves “permanent teachers” who are also “aspiring performers.”  Together they write the original show the campers put on as the season’s first performance; this year it’s to be a tribute to the comatose founder titled “Joan, Still.”  But writing and rehearsing it reveal fissures arising between the two old friends.  Meanwhile bumbling Troy falls into Caroline’s clutches, ultimately leaving the show as the last chance to rescue the camp.

The adults in the cast have their moments, though the would-be Tracy-Hepburn shtick between Platt and Gordon too often slides into mere hysteria and Tatro quickly becomes a bore as the newly-installed boss who refers to himself as an “en-Troy-preneur” (a not so bon mot unfortunately characteristic of the quality of verbal humor here).  On the other hand, Edebiri scores as the newcomer whose students quickly see through her phoniness, as does Galvin in the big finale, where the worm turns and he takes center stage with dazzling results.

But it’s the kids who provide the greatest pleasure.  There are a few miscalculations among them—the running gag about one (Alan Kim) who has no interest in performing but aims to sign up classmates for his would be talent agency, for example, is a flop (compare Barry Gordon’s unforgettable turn as a child agent on the old Jack Benny program).  But the audition montage is a high point (a thirteen-year old belting out “Sweeney Todd,” a kid holding a note longer than Ethel Merman could), and Kyndra Sanchez, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick and Luke Islam all shine in the talented ensemble; and Donovan Colan, as the newbie whose sense of nervous detachment is hilariously explained in the finale, plays off well opposite them.  There’s also an amusing sequence—better in the conception than execution, but still funny—when Troy has the idea of having the kids perform as singing waiters for a Rotary Club dinner hosted by David Rasche.

But here, as elsewhere, clumsiness in Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s directing, Nate Hurtsellers’ cinematography and Jon Philpot’s editing takes its toll.  From the excessive employment of oppressive close-ups to scenes that either feel attenuated or drag on too long and plot threads that simply disappear midway through or are disposed of with caption cards, the film has a ragged, congested feel that isn’t justified by its designation as a mockumentary.  On the other hand, the grubbiness of the production design by Charlotte Royer and Jordan Janota and Michelle Li’s costumes carries an air of authenticity, and the music by James McAlister and Mark Sonnenblick is cheesily effective, as are the original songs fashioned by Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, Platt and Sonnenblick. What rescues “Theater Camp” in large measure from its defects is the obvious affection it has for its subjects, those outcasts and misfits who might never hit it big on the stage but don’t let the odds stacked against them destroy their dreams.