There’s a reason why “Fame,” the 1980 dancing-in-the-streets teen schlock opera, is fondly remembered. It had one of those timeless guilty-pleasure theme songs, and it touched a generation newly hypnotized by…well, fame. Yet beyond that, what elevated the film’s essential mediocrity was its setting: the High School of Performing Arts, a New York institution so defined by its competitive drama-queen intensity that it became a perfect booster to the already heightened roller-coaster of adolescent turmoil and joy. (Think “Glee ’80.”) Now imagine if “Fame” didn’t just have that hook but was also a good movie. It might have looked something like “The Rehearsal.”
Which is not to say that “The Rehearsal” is going to win over “the kids.” It’s “Fame” for the mostly middle-aged art-house crowd — and at this point, even calling that audience a crowd is pushing it. The film’s principal setting is a prestigious school of drama in Auckland, New Zealand (it looks like an elegant fortress and is known, ominously, as “the Institute”), where Stanley (James Rolleston), a first-year acting student, has arrived to hone his craft. When he walks in, though, he looks like he doesn’t have craft to hone — he’s so blank in his attitude that we can hardly tell why he’s there.
He’s handsome in a swarthy pin-up way (Rolleston is the rising star of “Boy” and “The Dark Horse”), so he’s got the look of a pretty-boy soap stud. But his hunky nonchalance doesn’t sync up with the psychodramatic encounter-group vibe laid down by Hannah, the Institute’s founder and guru, played (terrifically) by Kerry Fox in a monumental pair of glasses and a shock of white-streaked hair that makes her look positively Sontagian in her owlish swagger. It’s Hannah, rather than Stanley, who lures us into the movie, because she’s one of those irresistible tough-love fascist leader-instructors — what was thought of for years as the Louis Gossett Jr. role, and what will now be known as the J.K. Simmons role. She comes on like a crusader for Method acting truth, and she is, but a part of her is just spoiling for a fight. Fox charges each encounter with a spark of disputatious energy — hectoring, cajoling, insulting. She’s like Stella Adler as an avant-garde cult leader.
Early on, she presides over an acting exercise in which Stanley, in front of the class, has to convince the student he’s on stage with that he wants her body and soul, and his performance is horribly inadequate — he’s lost in his reticent daze. But when Hannah tries to get him to reach in and pull out a deeper emotion, we see what she’s up to, and in that moment the film teaches you something about acting. It shows you why the revelation of an actor’s inner identity is dramatic.
“The Rehearsal” was directed by Alison Maclean, and that should come as welcome news to a certain micro indie-film circle, because it’s Maclean’s first feature since “Jesus’ Son,” the 1999 adaptation of a Denis Johnson short-story collection that inspired waves of praise 17 years ago. I’ve always had mixed feelings about that film — a number of good scenes that didn’t quite cohere — but in “The Rehearsal,” Maclean wrestles with her material in a more seasoned and confident way. The film is based on a novel by the Man Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton (who, like MacLean, was born in Canada and raised in New Zealand), and it has a quirky structure that’s executed with a verve that carries the audience along.
The movie hinges on Stanley’s relationship with Isolde (Ella Edwards), a girl he meets on a bus, and the local TV-news scandal that erupts around Isolde’s teenage sister, Victoria (Rachel Roberts), who is caught sleeping with her tennis instructor (Erroll Shand). The students at the Institute have been assigned to break into teams and spend months devising an original theater piece for the year-end show, and it’s Stanley’s inspiration to convert this tabloid Lolita scandal into a spectacle of performance art. In shakier hands, that twist might have been a contrivance, but the way MacLean stages it, it’s fascinating on several levels. We believe that these millennial thespians could be driven to find artistic value in the deconstruction of a hot-button news story that seems to come with its own encoded layers of meaning about sex, youth, the jaws of the patriarchy, and — yes — fame. Their theater piece, built around acidly sincere burlesque re-enactments, is driven by an audacity that fits the bill of exactly what a provocative task-master like Hannah would demand.
Maclean reveals her characters in searing emotional close-up. Stanley first lets out his inner dynamo during a class exercise in which he impersonates his loutish father. You’re not sure if you’re watching therapy or art, or maybe both, but it’s mesmerizing, and we suddenly see why Stanley has come off as rather blah; he’s keeping a lid on everything he is. The Stanley who emerges is something of a manipulator, but in letting that side of himself out, he becomes something we didn’t expect: a good actor. The main person he’s fooling is Isolde, who he doesn’t tell about the performance piece — a situation destined to crash and burn. But even more daring than that deception is the film’s portrayal of Victoria’s forbidden affair: She still thinks she’s in love. “The Rehearsal” is about how theater runs on the petrol of passion, but in this movie the more passion spills out the more dangerous it becomes. One of the acting students, the compulsively mocking Theo (played by the acerbic scene-stealer Marlon Williams), gets so berated by Hannah during an exercise that he hits a wall of trauma, and it knocks him out of his orbit.
“The Rehearsal” is engrossing, but it’s not a major vision. Maclean serves her material deftly, extending an unforced empathy to everyone on screen (she even humanizes the lecherous tennis pro), and that’s the sign of a born filmmaker. Yet there’s a dimension to Maclean that, in the future, she would do well to explore more. A character like Kerry Fox’s Hannah isn’t just about empathy — she also taps into a highbrow form of showbiz. The whole reason Hannah teaches acting, with a fervor that’s remorseless and at times cruel, is that that’s how badly she wants her students to connect to an audience. It’s a lesson that Maclean herself should now try to take to the next level.