“Acting,” the Tony winner Ben Platt opines in character, “is remembering and choosing to forget.” “Theater Camp,” a fizzy mockumentary about growing up Gershwin, does both. Platt wrote it with three longtime pals, Molly Gordon (friends since toddlerhood), Nick Lieberman (friends since high school) and his fiancé, Noah Galvin, who, like Platt, played the lead role in Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Gordon and Lieberman also direct the film.) These former youth performers remember everything: desperate auditions, capricious rejections and a dawning concern that one’s dreams of stage success are as flimsy as spray-painted cardboard stars. But the camp counselors the four have created — exaggerations of ones they’ve known — disregard the trauma they’ve endured, and now, inflict on others. Call it summer Stockholm syndrome. And call their group therapy session a treat.
Our setting is a drama institute named AdirondACTS, as scrawled in a tacky crayon font. Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) met here as children and, decades later, continue to haunt the one place that treats them like superstars. Broadway hasn’t beckoned. Nevertheless, every summer Amos and Rebecca-Diane hammer their wisdom into malleable minds.
The careerist young campers are roughly the same maturity level as the adults. They’re also played by fantastic talents including Luke Islam, Alan Kim and Bailee Bonick, the latter of whom can hold a high note longer than the life span of a gnat. Still, the tykes know their role is to obediently absorb their coaches’ pep talks (“Peter Piper picked a priority”), threats (“This will break you”) and dubious opinions (“I do believe her as a French prostitute,” Amos whispers of a pigtailed 10-year-old).
Failure wafts through the film, fastidiously unacknowledged. Here, a cruise ship callback and a repertory show in Sarasota represent the peak of achievable success. The grown-ups, who also include the costumer Gigi (Owen Thiele) and the dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), resent any challenge to their artistic authority. “It says here you’re allergic to polyester,” Gigi huffs to a camper. “Why?” Later, when the story threatens to herd us toward that most hoary cliché — we gotta put on a show to save the school! — it’s a relief to realize that most characters can’t be bothered with that plot point, either. They’re creatives, babe. Capitalism is for clods like the owner’s son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a YouTube finance-bro who boasts of being an “en-Troy-preneur.”
Gordon and Lieberman gesture faintly at a documentary structure. In the opening minutes, dry black-and-white intertitles barge into the action so often, you’re expecting them to claim that Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. Soon after, the editing relaxes, the doc conceit wanders off and the film finds its rhythm as a string of bitterly funny vaudeville sketches that smack of Kool-Aid mixed with salt.
Like many mostly improvised films, there’s a sense that half the story was abandoned on the cutting room floor. A late-breaking resolution hinges on a character who barely registers. Ayo Edebiri (from the television series “The Bear”) pops up as a first-time teacher with falsified experience in jousting and jugging — a promising gag, but she’s left to roam the margins, barely sharing any scenes with the rest of the cast. At one point, Galvin, playing a bashful stagehand, embarks on a tour of the cafeteria’s cliques. The scene stops at two. There’s just too much this film wants to cover.
Clearly, the actors feel their characters in their bones. My favorite physical detail was how Platt’s Amos interrupts a bad rehearsal by leaping onstage in a showy frog hop, like Kermit giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle. How magical that, later, this floundering show-within-a-show is rescued when the children invest every ounce of moxie into belting Rebecca-Diane’s lame lyrics. Gusto can spin anything into gold.
Rated PG-13 for spicy language and one adult slumber party. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.