Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 09, 2017 9:15 pm 
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Playacting too close to real

The Rehearsal is Alison Maclean's long-delayed sequel to her 1999 debut Jesus' Son. While that adapted Denis Johnson's linked story collection, this one is a free screen version of Mann Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s technically playful debut novel. The story about an Aukland acting "Institute" and its untoward interactions with a neighborhood scandal is a slow-burning ensemble piece. It has an admirably fresh and unpredictable quality.

Students at the Institute most work through the year to create and stage a joint end-of-term production that can not only blow away their demanding lead teacher Hannah (Kerry Fox of Shallow Grave, Bright Star) as drama but impress her and visiting talent scouts with participant students' individual skills. Likewise this ensemble movie impresses as a study of local society and a school, but highlights a few main characters, chiefly Hannah, with her Method brainwashing and tough love, and Stanley (James Rolleston, who's already starred in three films, Boy, The Dark Horse, and The Dead Lands), a "pretty" young Maori-heritage acting student she takes a liking to.

The Rehearsal is an intriguing mix of emotional and cool, like an actor who can engage an audience without personally losing it - perhaps like Stanley. It resembles a classier version of "Fame," but is unusual not only in its clear-headed look into how acting works but in being a New Zealand film whose offhand complexity has found it a place in some of the biggest international film festivals.

During early class exercises Stanlay comes off as hopelessly bland and without feeling, unable to access emotion or theatrical effects. But he turns out to be quite otherwise. It's a growing surprise when Stanley does show talent and access emotion - initially through channeling his macho dad in a class improvisation where he tells a dirty joke and comes on to Hannah. She likes.

In contrast when his mercurial housemate and pal William (Kieran Charnock) just tells a jokey family story to the class about a spoiled lamb roast that avoids real emotional revelation, Hannah creams him and he's devastated. Basic lesson: if you can't access deep feeling or aren't strong enough to be vulnerable, maybe you can't be an actor at all. Or maybe arts schools profs should be more careful about crushing young artistic spirits.

So that's one of a number of angles. Another, a key focus, is the term-end project. For it, Stanley gets the idea early on of depicting a tennis instructor who seduces his 15-year-old student Victoria (Rachel Roberts), a new local scandal. What he holds off revealing to the class or to her, is that he knows the story first hand, because he's dating Isolde (Ella Edward) Victoria's slightly older sister whom he met on a bus when coming to town. And come to think of it, Isolde is underage to Stanley, so he may be no better than the tennis coach. The story plays with a lot of these angles, delving into group sexual and teen personal issues and jumping around in a somewhat experimental way. And, if it all seems a bit too scattered, it does end up with a great final musical segment.

The Rehearsal, 102 mins., debuted July (NZIFF), Aug. Sept., and Oct. in subsequent festivals including Toronto, New York, and London. Included in the Mostly British Festival in San Francisco showing Sat. 18 Feb. 2017.

A limited US theatrical release from Mongrel International is scheduled Friday 7 July 2017 starting at the Metrograph Theater.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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