Film Review: The Rehearsal

This affecting story of one lad’s personal and artistic growth is one of the very best acting-school films.
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Set in a prestigious drama school in Auckland, New Zealand, The Rehearsal focuses on one student, Stanley (James Rolleston), who painstakingly develops from being a very cute but largely inexpressive blank into a real actor. This is largely achieved through some deep personal experience and the tirelessly hectoring exhortations of Hannah (Kerry Fox), the school’s founder, a veritable mistress of the Method, who is brutal in her refusal to let her students get away with anything false or half-hearted.

On the personal side, Stanley falls in love with a girl he meets on the bus, Isolde (Ella Edwards), whose sister Victoria (Rachel Roberts) is a would-be tennis pro and local TV scandal, due to her affair with her instructor. Stanley gets inspired to assemble his classmates together and stage a performance piece based on Victoria’s situation, with inevitable major consequences.

Although it might facilely be compared to the likes of Fame or “Glee,” such is director Alison Maclean’s empathy, perceptive humor and obvious reverence for the theatre that The Rehearsal goes far deeper than either of those comparatively glossy confections about kids learning their craft, and provides a wealth of fun and also honestly earned heartache. That “Lolita” subplot may strike some as contrived, but it does provide a juicy and rather welcome respite from all that hothouse jawing about truth in acting, however much one enjoys that stuff (and I do). Fox emerges as the true star of the movie and her florid, impassioned rants, however over the top, are often profound and deliciously conveyed by this actress who must have been like a racehorse on this set, raring to go and just waiting to hear “Action!”

There’s a wealth of pertinent detail in Maclean’s storytelling as well, vide the one teacher who has a sudden angry outburst during an assembly, which says volumes about the kind of toxic scholastic internecine warfare that goes on in every institute of learning. Maclean’s attitude towards the film’s kids—as well as the adults, who thankfully are not seen as “the bad guys”—is refreshingly unpatronizing and clear-eyed, although the memorial to one of them, fallen by the wayside before graduation, is a bit much.

Rolleston has warmth and appeal that go beyond the photogenic, and although it might have been interesting to explore his Maori background, I’m not sure that his character was meant to be such and, if not, this quarter is glad to know that race wasn’t a factor in his casting. One of the most interesting scenes is with his alpha-dog, macho dad, who confesses to playing on the “other team”—i.e., a regular guy with no interest in pursuing emotions or any of that “touchy-feely” stuff. Stanley has a high old time impersonating him for his class, and the fact that certain fathers, whether white or otherwise, can universally be total a-holes too is conveyed with blazing verve. Edwards has the sweet freshness of a morning dew-splashed gardenia—a very nice love interest for Stanley, although also underage—something she shares with lovely Roberts, who cannily is convincing and touching as a minor who definitely knows what she wants.

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