“Based on the novel by Eleanor Catton” has become a much more marketable phrase in the three years since the New Zealand author won the Man Booker prize for “The Luminaries,” a marvel of an 848-page tome currently being adapted as a miniseries for BBC. Her first novel, “The Rehearsal,” has beaten her second to the screen courtesy of filmmaker Alison Maclean. Set at a prestigious drama school and frequently engrossing, the film unfolds like an experimental acting workshop that occasionally falters when the plot intrudes on the performances.
Both Catton and a hardcover copy of “The Luminaries” make brief cameos here, but the real star is James Rolleston. Familiar to anyone who’s seen “Boy” or “The Dark Horse,” he plays Stanley, a shy but talented thespian in the process of finding himself as both a person and a performer — making him the perfect candidate for the baptism-by-fire approach championed by the head of his department (Kerry Fox of “An Angel at My Table.”) More J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” than Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” she’s the kind of passionate instructor whose intense methods inspire greatness and devastation in equal measure.
Like every other part of the ensemble, she and Stanley are more compelling as part of a collective than they are as individuals. “The Rehearsal” is constantly interrogating that tension, with some characters pushing back against the notion of team-building as they struggle to assert themselves. Stanley and his group develop a fixation for the “first follower” theory of building a movement, which has an effect on both their relationships and their work — a push-pull that’s often silent, the kind of subtext he and his peers are meant to read between the lines they deliver to one another.
Maclean, whose well-made adaptation of “Jesus’ Son” couldn’t hope to fully convey Denis Johnson’s incendiary prose, excels at bringing that unspoken energy to life. Early scenes in particular are a marvel of kinetic editing, moving from one evocative scene to the next with just enough context to avoid slowing down the momentum. Like the acting classes we’re treated to, these scenes are an exercise in not only being present in the moment but fully absorbed by it. At its best, “The Rehearsal” is the rare paean to art and performance that makes you want to join in on the experience.
In a standout scene, Stanley impersonates his father for his classmates and comes out of his shell by proxy — there’s a confidence to him as he tells dirty jokes and even hits on his teacher (who’s more charmed than she’d probably like to admit), with a swagger that neither his classmates nor we have ever seen before, and his bustling energy is of a piece with “The Rehearsal” as a whole.
For all that moment-to-moment immersiveness, though, the eventual narrative pivots arrive too hastily and with too little urgency behind them; Maclean spends so much time establishing an almost plotless, freeform mood that interrupting it with dramatics somehow feels like a disappointment. The sister of Stanley’s younger girlfriend is in the midst of a public scandal, which his class wants to co-opt for their year-end show, and meanwhile his best friend is spiraling ever downward.
“The Rehearsal” can’t help but follow its characters as their actions become more irrational and occasionally overwrought, but like them it’s redeemed by a simple yet bravura closing sequence, one of those inevitable-in-hindsight climaxes that’s no less effective for being retroactively predictable. It’s an ovation-worthy performance, and enough to make you want an encore.
“The Rehearsal” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.