The Rehearsal is a youthful melodrama that becomes a bit too “mellow” during its elongated midsection of teenage irresponsibility. A soul-searching beginning and an applause-worth end sandwich a hefty helping of chewy, overdone archetypes reminiscent of every passable coming-of-age tale you’ve ever sat through. Filmmaker Alison Maclean does certain justice to Eleanor Catton’s source novelization, but it’s not exactly the poignant theater-culture showstopper that’d halt talent agents in their tracks. Familiarity and dry plotting by way of bad decisions are Maclean’s worst enemies, yet those more tolerant viewers should have no trouble sticking around for a rousing final act. The kids aren’t alright – but is anyone, really?
James Rolleston stars as Stanley, an aspiring actor who’s just beginning his first-year of specialty schooling. On a bus one day, he meets Isolde (Ella Edward), and they begin “dating.” Isolde is the sister of a 15-year-old tennis student who got caught fooling around with her adult coach, a crime that has now become public. Stanley thinks it proper to exploit Isolde’s family and manipulate her situation for his end-of-year project, and constructs a performance around the inappropriate relationship. Sounds like a good idea, right? It’s not. Stanley spends all year navigating the social mess he created, continually shrugging off responsibility as only a college student can.
In just one year at acting school, Stanley does a lot of living. He finds love, experiences loss, discovers what passion feels like – Maclean is keen on young adult inspiration, and tries to shoehorn every dramatic foot possible into an already overcrowded boot. Characters feel like they can barely move at times, driven by certain emotional goals that force predictably poor decisions no matter how obvious the outcome may be.
Some of Stanley’s ups and downs with Isolde can be written off as immature love (we’ve all been there), but a brake-slamming character death feels unnecessary for the story being told. Yes, a broad message exists about leading your own way (dancing to your own tune, what have you), but the same ending could have been delivered without an off-screen exit that does little besides check off another tear-jerky box.
That said, the children of The Rehearsal give us something to believe in. Rolleston leads as the jock-turned-actor pretty-boy caught between a dream and a life, while Ella Edward plays his impish love interest who’s entirely too young (a sweet and seductive schoolgirl). Kieran Charnock takes the mantle of new best friend, who also happens to be a high-chasing hippie who constantly feels shackled by society’s stranglehold – a yin to Rolleston’s more rigid yang. Michelle Ny pops with an actress’ coolness, Scott Cotter has a fantastic tennis-grunt musical number and other students do more than fill in generic blanks. Adults played by Kerry Fox and Miranda Harcourt push and prod their students, but it’s much more interesting to see the children’s reactions than it is their mentor’s harping.
For too long, The Rehearsal flips from volatile to stuffy and expected. The challenges Stanley faces are a product of choice, and rarely seem natural. During a classroom teaching moment, Stanley is reminded that acting isn’t merely the art of copying – you’re not copying the actions of a train conductor to play one, you must feel a train conductor’s intuition and become one with his/her body and soul. The coincidence here is that Maclean falls a bit victim to her own scripted words during her film’s draggy midlife, as Stanley loses that feeling of humanity, and Rolleston merely feels like he’s walking a dramatic line that runs through the typical motions. He’s every cliché wrapped in one – a child of divorce, a wayward soul, a foolish lover, a sufferer of grief, the list goes on – and for every dramatic punch Rolleston lands, he follows up with a scripted whiff. We’re meant to feel each experience, but are forced to pick and choose between a lengthy list of topics.
That said, miraculously, a rather contrived conflict resolution leads to an ending that speaks far louder than the previous hour-or-so of rummaging through Stanley’s baggage. For how malaise and predictably lyrical Alison Maclean’s story becomes, a roaring finale sucks viewers back in through the power of motivation. In one last act, The Rehearsal becomes human again. A stage becomes more than a place to perform, much like the film becomes more than just something to watch. It’s in this moment that cinematic redemption is found, and a tie is made that holds all the weight of Stanley’s life-lesson-filled first year of schooling – a gesture that might come too late, but, for once, is not too little.
The Rehearsal is much like any coming-of-age melodrama, and while its meat is a little overdone, its intro and finale bookends do make up for a lack of flavor in between.