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From left, Kieran Charnock, James Rolleston, Michelle Ny, Alice Englert, and Scotty Cotte in The Rehearsal (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

From left, Kieran Charnock, James Rolleston, Michelle Ny, Alice Englert, and Scotty Cotte in The Rehearsal (Photos: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

The first week of the 54th New York Film Festival (NYFF) is chock-full, as usual, of acclaimed films that have played the international circuit this year. Among the ones to look out for, whether you’re actually attending the NYFF or not, is Kenneth Lonergan’s layered and moving Manchester by the Sea, a hit at Sundance that opens in November. There’s also a trio of films that stood out from the pack at Cannes, and which were highlights at the recent Toronto International Film Festival: Elle, Toni Erdmann (both of which have been submitted by France and Germany, respectively, for the best foreign film Oscar), and the best work by Ken Loach in some time, I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or. Additionally, Jim Jarmusch’s low-key ode to art for arts’ sake, Paterson (filmed across the Hudson River in New Jersey), is another potential highlight.

However, the festival’s Main Slate selections skewer heavily toward European art-house fare that premiered at Cannes, some of which is second-tier, such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s critically derided The Unknown Girl, which since it debuted in May, has been reedited. Another lower-ranking entry is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, though it stars Kristen Stewart at her personal best.

The NYFF also continues its rediscovery of Romanian cinema with Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, a rambling, intermittently involving fly-on-the-wall view of a large family gathered to commemorate its recently deceased patriarch. Stylistically, the film rigidly adheres to the austere style of long uninterrupted takes, and is recommended for those who have the patience and time for a sprawling 173-minute film.

All of the films mentioned thus far are known quantities, yet there are others to discover that so far haven’t found a U.S. distributor, and which are just starting to make the festival rounds. Director Alison Maclean’s last film, Jesus’ Son, came out 17 years ago, but she has since been prolific on television. Filmed and set in New Zealand, where she is based, her latest, The Rehearsal, ranks as one of the best adaptations of a young adult novel in the last 10 years, although Man Booker Prize-winning writer Eleanor Catton’s 2008 novel of the same name wasn’t published as a YA work. (She wrote it at age 21 for her master’s thesis.)

With a strong observational eye, the film seemingly has a slack structure, but that’s a directorial sleight of hand. Instead of hitting plot point after plot point, the narrative unfolds at a deceptively casual pace until viewers realize about midway through that they are hooked.

It opens with a stack of actors’ resumes and head shots. As the camera settles on the photo of one particularly bright-eyed, good-looking young man of about 18 years, a voice from off-camera considers the candidate, typing him as a “country boy, pretty boy.” The youth, Stanley (James Rolleston), makes the cut and he’s in, one of a small group chosen as first-year drama students in a program run with firm, unequivocal authority by Kerry Fox as the acting teacher-turned-god, Hannah. The young students hang on her every word, vying for approval. The neediness of the young actors seeking respect and the cult of personality are among the details that the film gets right. (Hannah’s main mantra is: acting is hard work. Oh, and its a horrible career.)

The film covers the students’ giddy and grinding first year, with Stanley on his own for the first time, living in a flat with a rich kid, William (Kiernan Charnock), who channels Sean Penn’s party bro Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. During this time, Stanley starts dating 15-year-old Isolde (Ella Edward, giving a heart-on-her-sleeve performance that Hannah would approve). The film hints that her relationship with Stanley may be an attempt to step out from under her family’s drama: her older sister had been sleeping with her married 40-something tennis coach. He was arrested, and the scandal has become a top local news story.

With Stanley’s full cooperation and little introspection, he and a group of fellow students choose this tabloid tale for their school project, an end-of-the-year dramatic presentation. Besides becoming Isolde’s boyfriend, Stanley serves as her sounding board. Everything she divulges about her sister and the older man winds up as part of the students’ script. (Their production nearly has the same naïve earnestness of Saturday Night Live’s “High School Theater Show.”)

The storyline becomes as messy and nuanced as some of the best YA fiction tackling discomforting themes. But Maclean keeps the focus on the actors; everything else, including the camerawork and soundtrack, plays second fiddle. Thanks to its straightforward direction, almost all of the actors have individual moments in the spotlight. Along with Toni Erdmann, Paterson, I, Daniel Blake, and Elle, The Rehearsal features one of the strongest ensembles in the festival and could become a sleeper.

A scene from My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

A scene from My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Another film that arrives without a distribution deal is My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, which is the flipside of The Rehearsal. Whereas the latter film exudes sensitivity, this animated teen meltdown is as snarky and brash as early-1990s MTV. The outsider smarts of the droll Daria mixes with the crude rambunctiousness of Beavis and Butthead, albeit with a script that’s not as tight. Entirely hand-drawn, the film’s squiggly, thick outlines vibrate, and the characters move about stiffly. The animation design is crude and jubilantly juvenile.

The main character, Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), is the spitting image of the film’s writer/director, graphic novelist Dash Shaw. It’s autumn and the start of his sophomore year, and he feels optimistic; his acne has gone away and his best friend, Assaf (Reggie Watts), has dropped some pounds, so logically, they should make lots of friends.

Dash writes “real-deal, heavy stories” for the school’s newspaper with a fondness for over-the-top prose (“Mary’s words stayed with him like a wine stain on a pair of tighty-whities”), and he certainly discovers a scoop. After being sent to a backroom for detention for writing a mean-spirited article, he pokes around some storage boxes and chances upon an inspection report that reveals the new school additions are not up to code. Out in the hallways, Dash becomes a Cassandra: He warns everyone that they are in danger, but no one believes him.

Shaw has said that he was inspired by James Cameron’s Titanic, which came out while he was in high school. But his film feels like another disaster movie from an earlier time, 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, as sure enough, the entire school slides off a cliff into shark-infested waters after an earthquake and the gushing water currents drag away most of the student body. As with an ocean liner, the lower classes are more at risk of drowning, so Dash and the few survivors have to climb up to the senior floor and upward to safety. The ragtag team includes Lorraine the Lunch Lady, voiced by a gruff Susan Sarandon as though her diet consists only of four packs a day; the brainy and popular student body president; and the school’s principal.

Like the classic 1970s disaster movies, death becomes a part of the scenery, with body parts strewn everywhere and the body count soaring into the hundreds. And as was the case in The Towering Inferno, all could have been averted if an inspection hadn’t been forged. (Meanwhile, similar to Poseidon, one individual sacrifices himself for the greater good.) Even at 75 minutes, though, the single-themed premise feels stretched to the limit, and the only variations in tone come from sequences produced by contributing animators, which add a welcome visual variety. If just a half-minute longer, the film would sink. Lena Dunham and Maya Rudolph also contribute to the voice cast.

The Rehearsal screens on October 5th and 6th, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea on October 10th and 11th.