NYFF Review: The Rehearsal


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.

Rating: 1/10

Nathanael Hood is a 27 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He graduated from New York University - Tisch with a degree in Film Studies. He is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and his personal film blog http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/. You can contact him via email at nathanael@theyoungfolks.com. Follow him on Twitter: @natehood257 and Tumblr: filmsfoodandfandom.tumblr.com
  • RMP

    I was at last nights screening and the audience’s response to the film at the end was the exact opposite of what you describe. It was not “deathly quiet” as you write. It was sustained enthusiastic applause — that generously continued when the spotlight fell on the filmmakers in their box. If you didn’t like the movie, fine, that’s your opinion – but you lose all credibility by misrepresenting the audience’s response just to try to bolster your argument or prove your point.

    • Nathanael Hood

      I have no doubt they did. But if you’ll notice, I said that there was silence at the PRESS SCREENING. That one was closed to the public and was held on September 20th. And dead silence is not the usual reaction critics have, even to mediocre films.

      • RMP

        Yes, you did say press screening. But I disagree with you saying dead silence is not the usual reaction critics have — In my experience, most if not all the festival press screenings I’ve attended — and I’ve been to countless — especially in NY — a film is met with relative silence at the end — the critics are there to work – they’re tired – they’re grumpy — they’re on to the next film. They’re not acting like tourists or regular audience members.

        • Nathanael Hood

          Well, I can’t call you a liar. I don’t know you. But this is my 5th film festival that I’ve covered as a critic. And this year, the critics have been very vocal during the press screenings.

  • focuser

    I don’t think you understood the film. This is a film written and directed by women, who are calling attention to the double-standards set by adults that they themselves do not follow. That’s why the adults are the villains. We see the adults as terrible examples for the children to follow. You attack a character for statutory rape when he is 18 and she is 16 yet the film shows us the paradox: we see a much older man and a young girl sexually active, and then we see a teacher who is thrilled it’s being used for an acting showcase who misrepresents the act (she calls it a lolita archetype) yet CONDEMNS the boy for his feelings for the girl.

    The boy’s love for the girl is real, yet all you can do is condemn him for an illegal act whose law the film has already proven is impossible to enact.

    I’d go back to film school. Learn about complexity and layers.

    All you’re seeing is the law.

    • Nathanael Hood

      Hello focuser.

      I just want to say that I read your comment and really took some time to think about my response. I knew this kind of comment was inevitable as it almost always is when I end up panning a film for being morally reprehensible. And I want to start by saying that if you liked this film, if you think that it succeeded in saying what you think it wanted to say, then I’m glad. I really am. I would never want to take that away from you.

      But all of the points that I made above stand. Films don’t exist in moral vacuums, just as they don’t exist in political vacuums. Any director who tries to say that their films are “detached from morality” are either hacks, sociopaths, or both. The letter of the law isn’t important here. The film doesn’t condemn something that is clearly portrayed as toxic: statutory rape. The girl was a minor (and if memory serves right she was younger than her sister, making her at most 14 years old). He was a college student. He should have known better. And the fact that the film allows any gray area to exist in this debate is something I find repugnant.

      I also considered what you said about the film’s treatment about women…and you may have some points. But just because a film is by women about women, it doesn’t mean that they’re somehow magically immune from criticism about their treatment of ethics, gender, and sexuality. If anything, the director should have known better than anyone.

      As I said, I would never want to take this film away from you if you enjoyed it. That’s your right. But I respectfully disagree. This isn’t an attack against you, it’s a statement about something I believe.

      • focuser

        I won’t engage in ad hominem, but your comment is patently false.

        Movies create a reality, like a laboratory, where ideas are played with. Movies takes risks with morality that we can’t explore here legally. That’s the very point of movies. They’re far from detached, they’re integral to our notions of morality BECAUSE they help us to ponder whether laws are just or unjust, and whether they unnecessarily discriminate against certain groups.

        What’s so weird is that your morality is so extreme that you denigrate the hero of The Rehearsal because he breaks a law that obviously can’t apply to either him or Isolde. You act as if he’s repulsive, when actually, he’s the only truth-teller in the entire film.

        To put it more on general terms. Your review’s terms, if applied to films like Blue Velvet, or Avatar, would have those films fail because Jeffery Beaumont broke the law in spying on Dorothy Vallens or because Jake Sully broke the law siding with the Pandorans.

        I would suggest, based on your strict, puritan terms, that you’re deeply unable to understand the full scope of humanity that cinema reaches for, far beyond the puny boundaries of the law.

  • cmj

    Nathanael. Focuser has hit on something. Your talents are wasted at the press screenings you seem to enjoy attending so much. Spread your wings wider. Bring us your distinctive legal assessments of Badlands, Once Upon a Time in the West, In the Realm of the Senses. Go through the lot. There’s an audience of concerned, decent people out there who need help making up their minds. Also, I’m worried about Dirty Dancing. I mean, it may have been legal, but was it *right*?