I like to think that when Alison Maclean finished shooting her new film The Rehearsal, she and her editor Jonno Woodford-Robinson sat down and numbered each scene individually. Maclean then flipped a coin. If it was heads, all the even-numbered scenes would be cut; if tails, all the odd-numbered scenes. What other way can I rationalize the sheer incoherence of The Rehearsal, a film as ethically offensive as it is formalistically shoddy.
I literally don’t understand what happened. Maclean has proven herself time and again an excellent director with films like Crush (1992) and Jesus’ Son (1999). In my first screenwriting class, my teacher showed her award-winning short Kitchen Sink (1989)—a surrealist, horror-fantasy cautionary tale about demanding too much from romantic partners—as an example of how to properly structure storylines. But I see none of the genius that fired those films in The Rehearsal.
The film follows Stanley (James Rolleston), a student who inexplicably gets accepted into a highly competitive acting college despite being a terrible actor. That’s not a joke: he gets mercilessly chewed out by his acting teachers for being emotionally closed off and incompetent during his early classes. Yet despite said incompetence, he gradually forms a friendship with Hannah (Kerry Fox), the school’s most imperious and demanding teacher who instructs through cruelty and classroom humiliation. Eventually he gets grouped together with several other students for their first-year project, an experimental theater piece on a subject of their choosing. What do they choose? A local scandal about a minor being seduced by a forty-something tennis coach. But instead of exploring the horror of pedophilia and statutory rape, they earnestly try to “understand” the scandal by trying to enter into the head-spaces of the coach and the victim. One scene where one of Stanley’s group partners pretends to be the coach and monologues about how beautiful the minor’s neck veins were during orgasm nauseated me.
But wait, it gets worse. Turns out Stanley is dating the victim’s sister, Isolde (Ella Edward). She also happens to be a minor. When they get spotted in public, Hannah understandably tells him to break it off: the school can’t handle a statutory rape scandal, especially one involving the sister of the tennis coach victim. Stanley responds by promptly visiting Isolde and sleeping with her for the first time. The film never punishes Stanley for this; even the scene where he confesses to Isolde’s parents the nature of their relationship is played for dark comedy. The film even ends happily for them, the two quite literally walking together towards an unknown future full of possibilities. It is, in a word, repugnant.
If I’ve made this film seem coherent, it was in spite of the film itself. Plot threads and random scenes are strung together with less connective tissue than a 65-million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. It felt like the first two minutes of any given episode of Law & Order stretched out to 102 minutes. I kept waiting for the plot threads to tie together, but they never truly did. They all just stagger towards a common conclusion.
I hated The Rehearsal. I hated how it refused to condemn Stanley’s statutory rape and possibly even romanticized it with a happy ending. I hated Stanley’s character, a weak-willed coward who forces his theater group to come up with a new end-of-year performance piece less than 48 hours before its due because he couldn’t sack up to confess to Isolde that they were exploiting her family’s tragedy for the sake of “art.” I hated how the film expected me to empathize with him. I hated how it refused to follow through with Hannah’s character arc after a student’s suicide forces her to re-evaluate her teaching methods.
And if the deathly quiet that met the film’s end credits at its New York Film Festival press screening was any indication, I was not alone.