In the prestigious New Zealand drama school where much of Alison Maclean's The Rehearsal takes place, young thespians search within and without for an authenticity that's not so easily achieved. The program's director, played with ferocious wit by the veteran Kiwi actress Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table), demands that students earn her respect, which is not freely or easily given. Even when acting exercises leave them feeling immensely vulnerable in front of their classmates, she breaks them down like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and cares little about building them back up again. That's their job. She merely gives them the tools to do it.
Based on the first novel by Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal takes the craft of acting seriously enough to understand perils far beyond careers that never get off the ground. It is incisive about the process that yields a great performer, which can unearth painful revelations about who they are and have consequences for the real people who inspire them. Casting a sympathetic eye across the entire cast of characters, Maclean and her co-writer, novelist Emily Perkins, consider the vanity, ambition and human weakness that can inform creative expression while fostering moral toxicity in the process. What's a few ruined lives when there might be agents in the audience?
The biggest challenge for Maclean—and one she doesn't entirely resolve—is that her lead character is passive in the extreme, a blank slate for circumstances to color however they will. Shortly after being accepted into the drama school, Stanley (James Rolleston) is lambasted by his instructor, Hannah (Fox), for failing to say the words "I want you" convincingly. Stanley starts to get a better idea of what he wants when he meets a girl, Isolde (Ella Edward), on a bus and they fall into a casual romantic relationship. Isolde has just caught her underage sister in a tryst with her older, married tennis instructor and the scandal has put her family in the news.
So when Stanley breaks off with a group of four other students to prepare an original year-end performance for a theater full of teachers, donors, agents, family members, news organizations, and members of the public, he doesn't have to look far for inspiration. When his classmates hear about his relationship to Isolde and his access to this massive scandal, they're eager to turn reality into performance art, and Stanley doesn't have the conviction to resist. As the performance starts to take shape, Stanley bonds with his group and starts to earn Hannah's respect as an actor, but the pursuit of fame exacts a steep price for him and the people closest in his orbit.
The more The Rehearsal sticks to classrooms and performance spaces, the better it is. For one, none of the young actors here approach the magnetism and withering force of Fox's teacher/administrator, whose voice so dominates the students and faculty that it takes a massive effort for anyone to resist her. Returning to features for the first time since 1999's Jesus' Son, her fine adaptation of Denis Johnson's short story collection, Maclean asks tough questions about the craft of acting and the behavior of administrators who would rather collect donor checks for new facilities than do the right thing for their students.
The Rehearsal isn't quite as assured when it leaves the campus and delves into Stanley's personal life, however much the two stories end up connecting. The tennis scandal works beautifully as fodder for avant-garde performance art, but there's nothing inherently compelling about the reality of it, other than the collateral damage. Maclean and Rolleston work hard to turn Stanley from a cipher to a fully human and moral being, but his transformation registers most when he's on the stage rather than off it. There's no hiding under the klieg lights.