Just days before The Rehearsal's screening at the NZ International Film Festival I started reading Eleanor Catton's astonishing debut novel of the same name. As you do.
When I took my seat in Auckland's grand Civic Theatre for the screening I hadn't finished the book, but it was clear the ambitiousness of Catton's storytelling, non-linear timeline, multiple narratives and distinctive prose would make this a tricky novel to adapt.
In the hands of Emily Perkins, another New Zealand author with an innate ability to write genuine teenage characters, and writer director Alison Maclean (Crush, The Kitchen Sink), The Rehearsal retains the wit, candour, realism and heightened drama of the novel, all the while setting itself apart from its source material with key changes and a more relaxed approach to dialogue. Both changes will help draw in an audience beyond just Catton admirers.
The foundation of the story remains in place, but is stripped back - high school students and their parents deal with the fallout of a sex scandal between a teacher and pupil, while a group of drama students use the scandal as inspiration to write a play.
In the film, the disgraced teacher is a tennis coach rather than a music teacher, and the action shifts from a high school to a tertiary drama school. This last change is a good move - there's little more hilarious than watching actors do their vocal warm-up exercises, especially when led by Miranda Harcourt.
The connection between the two storylines is delivered through a budding romantic relationship between Stanley (James Rolleston), a small-town teen in his first year at drama school, and the younger sister of the girl caught up in the scandalous tennis affair, Isolde (Ella Edward).
We all know the answer to the story's main ethical dilemma - whether, without her knowledge, it's acceptable to use your girlfriend's sister's sex scandal to get a great grade. But what is more intriguing is the subtle exploration of power and intimacy within the characters' relationships, and the challenges of art imitating life.
Stanley's own dubious relationship with a younger girl adds a level of tension and unpredictability, and the fascinating insight into life at drama school adds plenty of humour (and horror!).
is a film that dares to be different, both tonally and structurally. Though it doesn't always unfold smoothly it remains compelling thanks to a superb cast. Kerry Fox and Rolleston are bewitching together, and the future of New Zealand acting would appear to be excellent, given the strong performances by most of the young cast.
Edward's startling authenticity and composure as Isolde means it's hard to take your eyes off her, while Michelle Ny, Alice Englert, singer Marlon Williams and Rachel Roberts make their mark and deserve their place on screen with some of our more respected, established thespians.
Cast: Kerry Fox, James Rolleston, Alice Englert
Director: Alison Maclean
Running Time: 98 mins
Rating: M (Offensive language, sexual references, drug use)
Verdict: Spell bounding performances by all