Film / Theatre Reviews

Dublin Review: The Rehearsal


What if Miles Teller in Whiplash wasn’t a dick, and chose the girl over the art? Then you’d get something like Kiwi drama The Rehearsal, which doesn’t have the intense tempo of Damien Chazelle’s jazzy endorsement of creativity-as-cruelty, but is interested in similar questions of how a young artist finds themselves and what they are willing to sacrifice in the process. Alison Maclean’s first feature since 1999’s Jesus’ Son adapts Eleanor Catton’s debut novel of the same name, with Emily Perkins as co-screenwriter, for a down to earth spin on the Fame mythos with a strong eye for drama school’s coming-of-age possibilities.

Set in the New Zealand suburbs, the film shares with its central character Stanley (James Rolleston) an unhurried, emotionally careful presence. The naive and quiet high school grad Stanley has been accepted to The Institute, the region’s prestigious drama academy, and The Rehearsal charts his adjustment to the demands of the programme, which culminates in an end-of-year group show performed in public for the attention of industry headhunters. Commanding respect and a dash of fear is the school’s imposing ringmaster, Hannah, played by Kerry Fox, a disciplined but effective teacher who pushes the students to achieve artistic honesty and rallies the bureaucracy of funding in the direction of an expensive new theatre. Hannah is more rounded than the drill sergeant cliché, Fox bringing a twinkle of professional intelligence, but, as she insists to the late-blooming Stanley, excellence means a willingness to go all the way. At one point she even kicks a chair over.

For the subject of their final project, Stanley and his friends have chosen a local scandal involving a tennis coach having an inappropriate, and possibly illegal, affair with a gifted young female player (changed from the book’s saxophone tutor). The only knick is Stanley’s burgeoning relationship with 15 year-old Isolde (Alice Englert), who happens to be the sister of the girl at the centre of the fiasco, his romance doubling as an insider line for juicy details. As the date of the performance looms, and Stanley finds himself more involved in their up-heaved family life, he has to make a decision about the ethics of weaving art out of real-life drama and hurting civilians along the way.

The Rehearsal‘s narrative pivots on Stanley’s dilemma, but its strength lies in the laidback, inviting approach to the drama school environment, its classes and teachers, and the dynamics of friendship and romance that play out with an almost improvised looseness. Striking colours and performative flourishes help maintain youthful creative spirit and the young men and women in attendance feel true to life. It’s rare to see this hothouse location, so ripe for pulp and melodrama, treated with a gentle hand. Only Stanley’s roommate William (Kieran Charnock), a joking free spirit type with cards marked for tragedy, feels close to the burn-too-bright stereotype. Stanley and Isolde’s relationship proceeds with the haltering, unsure rhythm of first love, and the result is sweet and well-observed, an intelligent film conscious of the ambiguities of artistic growth. Conor Smyth

The Rehearsal has not yet been scheduled for wide release. The Audi Dublin International Film Festival continues in multiple venues until 26th February.

Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.