Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal begins as an intriguing study of young actors as emotional parasites who drain experience from others to compensate for their relative greenness in life. Stanley (James Rolleston) is a handsome 18-year-old who’s been accepted into the Institute, a drama school that has a reputation for forging not only actors but actors’ careers. Stanley is painfully shy, unformed, and out of sync with who he is and what he wants—a demeanor which contrasts, not altogether unappealingly, against the seen-it-all pretenses his classmates have already learned to affect. A morality tale, The Rehearsal eventually concerns Stanley’s efforts to discern how far he’s willing to go to become recognized as an actor, and how long he’s willing to play the political game necessary for getting his art seen.
The film’s conflict is trumped up into a reductive good/bad binary. There’s no such thing as success in art without political shuffling, as anyone a little older or shrewder than Stanley can attest. Hannah (Kerry Fox), the leader of the Institute, is villainized for prizing the school’s new renovation project over more idealistic concerns, and for initiating corporate practices into the hiring of professors. She’s also too encouraging of Stanley’s end-of-year project for The Rehearsal’s comfort, which is a play based on a scandal engulfing the family of his underage girlfriend, Isolde (Ella Edwards): how Isolde’s 15-year-old sister was caught in a compromising position with her adult tennis coach. Are Stanley and his collaborators spinning art from this story, or merely hitching their wagon to a sensational headline? It rarely occurs to Maclean that Stanley could be doing both, and she allows an irony to hang suggestively but essentially un-parsed: that Stanley is also technically a statutory rapist, involved, no less, with the same family as the subject of his art’s ire.
We see bits and pieces of Stanley and his group’s play, and it has a limitation that shackles the film to a lesser extent: a lack of empathy. The play appears to paint the tennis coach as a leering sexual predator and the girl as a passive victim, when it’s clear that the real story is more complicated. The naïveté of the play is an intentionally achieved and convincing approximation of what an aspiringly edgy young artist might produce, but the film exhibits a similar lack of imagination for Hannah’s motivations. This woman is the driver of a major drama institute, and she’s one of its most feared and respected teachers. Surely, she’s more than the bureaucrat that the film gradually reduces her to? Stanley and his group eventually drop their project in a show of integrity that’s meant to rebuke Hannah, but the audience may feel this gesture to be a cop-out, on the part of Stanley and The Rehearsal at large.
Which is a shame, because the sequences set in the acting workshops have a searing, scary, erotic intimacy that speaks of experience working within the setting. Hannah is a taskmaster (though she’s mild compared to real stories of legendary acting coaches), but her tactics are rooted in a principle of fair artistic trade: If an actor is to borrow someone else’s life, they owe their subject the courtesy of risking a greater level of exposure. As the filmmaker protagonist says to her actors in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, one should see the actor and the character side by side, and this idea is thrillingly illuminated in The Rehearsal by two scenes centered on classroom exercises with Stanley. In the first, he’s so tentative that he’s unable to inform a carnal line with authority; in the second, several months later, he uses his resentment of his cocksure father as a means for a startling transformation, gaining in the classroom a sexual agency and wiliness that exceeds his experience and temperament, emitting sexual tension with Hannah, his worldly mentor.
Maclean films these scenes with evocative, angular directness, and the extraordinary cast captures a churning undertow of ambition, vulnerability, and desire. The Rehearsal is organized around the paradox of wishing to impress authority figures with renegade actions that paradoxically adhere to someone else’s notion of rebellion, and this nuance comes to breathtaking life in the scenes set on the Institute’s stages. The civics lesson pertaining to Isolde and her family is unnecessary window dressing that tethers a promising tale of artistic toil to the strictures of melodrama.