To many people it probably seemed that Alison Maclean directed the stunning and weird Jesus’ Son in 1999, starring then-unknowns Samantha Morton and Billy Crudup, then vanished off the face of the earth. There was something kind of thematically symmetrical about that, even if it was heartbreaking to lose her clearly singular voice and comfortingly warped world view right after she arrived. Maclean’s directed hours of television and a bunch of short films since then, but nothing she’s done could quite prepare you for the thoroughly bizarre The Rehearsal, her first feature in over a decade. It’s ultimately about being unafraid of looking wrong, but it seems to exist more as a slingshot for neon otherness and arhythmic scene construction than to serve any thematic purpose.
Mumbly mahogany James Rolleston is Stanley, an affectless freshman acting student at the prestigious Institute, a drama school lorded over by human icicle Hannah (Kerry Fox, always a welcome sight). Riding the bus on his first day of school he meets Isolde (Ella Edward) and they take a shine to each other, though it’ll be months before they actually start dating. Isolde’s sister Victoria (Rachel Roberts) is the talk of the town because she slept with her married tennis instructor (Erroll Shand). This story so excites the members of Stanley’s acting group, they decide to turn it into the basis for their big end-of-the-year acting showcase. Stanley is naturally torn about keeping that a secret from his girlfriend and her family, but this being that kind of movie, it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows what’s up.
That’s the story, but that likely only takes up about 35 minutes of The Rehearsal‘s 102 minutes. The rest of the film is harder to describe in a linear fashion. There are party scenes, lots of them; bizarre acting exercises; arguments about the direction of the Institute, based largely on events to which we in the audience are not privy; and lots of aimless conversation. There is also quite a lot of footage of the terrible, overly earnest and obvious show that Stanley’s friends make out of Victoria’s affair. A lot of the seemingly random plot developments over the film’s yearlong timeline were probably foregrounded better in the source novel by Eleanor Catton, such as a major character’s suicide or the sudden sapphic encounter at the resultant funeral. There is, however, a peculiar strength to the way Maclean pieces this madness together. The longer she can keep the film about life’s natural unpredictable course by remaining rhythmically beholden to it, the longer The Rehearsal stays thrilling. Her style is as ingratiatingly off as it was in Jesus’ Son, mixing lateral dolly shots and woozy handheld close-ups with confidence, all under the eaves of Connan Mockasin’s oddball score. But the film must eventually conclude and in so doing sort out all the pieces, make them fit together and say something. This is a mistake. The ending is a total miscalculation, utterly powerless in the face of the fantastic tangle of non-events that came before it. In the moment The Rehearsal is alive with spontaneity and can be breathtaking. In the rearview it’s about horrible, pretentious kids who haven’t figured out what it means to be adults, rubbing everyone’s nose in their adolescence by refusing to do the responsible thing. Maclean’s sympathy for these lumps is admirable but it’s hardly contagious.