Theater Camp (12A) ***
Afire (12A) ****
Scrapper (12) **
The Dive (15) **
From the pioneering films of Christopher Guest to massively successful TV shows such as The Office and Modern Family, the mockumentary format has become so ubiquitous over the last 20-plus years it’s almost meaningless. Moving beyond parody to become a genre in its own right, you’d have to go all the way back to 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows to find the last genuinely funny one.
The latest entry, Theater Camp, is funny, however, though its humour and sweetness has nothing to do with it being framed as a mockumentary. Visual language has evolved enough that the writing and directing team of Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon (who also stars) could just as easily have shot it documentary style without hanging a lantern on it with intertitles explaining the progress of the doc-within-the-film (verité documentaries rarely do this anyway).
Despite this, Theater Camp largely gets by on the larger-than-life personalities of its characters as they congregate in that peculiarly American institution: the summer camp. Theatre camp, of course, is where all the sensitive weirdos, misfits and queer kids go – a performing-arts retreat where they can feel safe among fellow Stephen Sondheim aficionados and precocious Eugene O’Neill fans.
“Safe”, though, is perhaps the wrong word. The camp counsellors are all former camp attendees themselves who've tried to make it in the entertainment industry and have had their dreams thoroughly obliterated. Now they’re desperately holding onto the one gig where they can still be stars, even though their shattered egos are in no way healed enough for them to avoid displacing their own bitter trauma narratives onto the kids.
They’re monsters, in other words, but lovable, fragile monsters, especially Broadway star Ben Platt’s Amos and Gordon’s Rebecca-Dianne. Co-dependent theatre geeks since childhood (in real life and in the film), they’ve taken it upon themselves to write the camp’s end-of-year show: a tribute to the facility’s comatose owner Joan (Amy Sederis). The story behind the latter’s misfortune functions as the film’s plot kicker and brings conflict in the form of her feckless son Troy, an aspiring entrepreneur and YouTube vlogger (he’s played with just the right amount of obnoxious brio by former YouTube star Jimmy Tatro). Taking over the running of the financially flattened camp, he’s courted by the venture-capitalist owners of the neighbouring camp, who’ve been eyeing up their land. All plot roads inevitably lead to an effort to save the camp by putting on a show, which manages to be arch, tasteless and sincere all at once.
Not everything works. A promising role for The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri as an unqualified teacher bluffing her way through acting workshops gets lost in the improv-heavy mix. And the kids themselves get the fuzzy end of the lollypop, mostly reduced to being joke facilitators for the emotionally immature grown-ups – though Donovan Colan is quite fun as the kid with gay dads coming to terms with the fact he’s straight.
The delicate egos of the creatively inclined are also at the heart of Afire, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. Revolving around a writer who’s retreated to his best friend Felix’s family vacation home for the summer to finish his second novel, the film slyly punctures the fallacy that self-imposed misery is a fulcrum for good art. Thomas Schubert takes the lead as Leon, a priggish, self-obsessed author whose unwillingness to engage with the world around him is suffocating his writing as surely as the forest fires raging nearby are destroying the landscape. Leon is especially embittered that he and Felix are having to share their space with Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer), who’s also staying for the summer and whom Leon has dismissed as an unserious person. In fact, she’s very much the opposite and it’s one of the film’s best conceits that she’s not some vapid manic pixie dream girl there to guide Leon towards personal/creative enlightenment. On the contrary, Nadja’s got a full life and barely thinks about Leon at all, which drives him crazy. Socially awkward cringe-com ensues, but so too does a quite remarkable and moving ending.
Revolving around a 12-year-old girl fending for herself following her mother’s death, Scrapper has a buoyancy and brightness that reflects the titular resilience and imagination of its protagonist, Georgie (Lola Campbell). It’s too bad, then, that debut director Charlotte Reagan subsequently obliterates any credibility in her conception of Georgie’s world. It’s one thing, for instance, to present the people she views as her enemies as contemptuous caricatures, it’s quite another to have George easily dupe social services into letting her live on her own by making up a fake uncle called – wait for it – Winston Churchill. As the father she’s never known shows up threatening to grass her up unless she lets him move in (he’s played by Harris Dickinson), the already fanciful plot veers into sentimental heart-tugging territory.
Pressure and tension sadly don’t go hand-in-hand in The Dive, an underwater thriller about a pair of scuba-diving sisters (Louisa Krausse and Sophie Lowe) forced to work through their respective family traumas and general estrangement from each other when of them gets trapped underwater miles from any help. Early scenes of them tag-teaming their oxygen supplies have some suspense, but the character development is so rote it quickly leaves this two-hander with nowhere to go.
All films on general release from 25 August; Afire is also available on demand from Curzon Home Cinema