The crushing of young spirits begins just a few moments into new film The Rehearsal.

“You’ve spent your lives being admired and praised,” says a teacher to fresh-faced new students at a prestigious Auckland drama school. “We’re sorry that happened to you. We want to treat you better than that.”

“Better” is debatable. The Rehearsal is a film built on power dynamics and moral quandaries. An underage girl has been sleeping with her tennis coach, and the scandal has hit the media. Was it consensual? Meanwhile, teenage acting student Stanley (James Rolleston) finds himself with inside information on the affair and, with the encouragement of overbearing tutor Hannah (Kerry Fox), he proceeds to betray his girlfriend’s trust to use the story for his drama assessment.

It’s familiar material for director Alison Maclean. She’s has been making films for 30 years and knows a thing or two about the perils of creating art. It’s a constant process of scouring your personal life, and that of those around you, for material. “It’s very easy to use people’s lives without thinking of the consequences,” she says. “And on at least one occasion, in an acting workshop, I’ve been reduced to a very vulnerable state by a strong-willed drama teacher.”

It’s been a while between films for Kiwi-American director Maclean. The Rehearsal is her first feature film in 17 years (her last was the acclaimed Jesus’ Son, 1999). In the meantime she’s directed episodes of TV shows such as Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, and numerous short films and music videos, notably for Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. But getting a feature film off the ground is a gargantuan task.

“It’s a sad fact,” says Maclean, “but it’s hard to get things made in the States, especially the sorts of things I want to make, which are perhaps a little … unusual.”

Unusual is selling herself short. The Rehearsal shows what Maclean can do when she’s given the opportunity to get away from the restrictions of television. It’s audacious and offbeat, but at its heart it’s a coming-of-age story of rare honesty.

A decade ago she directed a short film called Intolerable about the audition process, and she wanted to return to that to write something about acting life. It’s a story about exploitation and the complexities of power, but visually, it’s also a film about human movement. Maclean revels in the weirdness of the drama-school setting; we peer into classrooms and see vocal warm-ups and improv-dance sessions. It’s also about desire: the artificial setting of adolescents in hothouse drama classes – coupled with the tension of uneven power dynamics between teachers and students – is steeped in lust.

All these elements are what Maclean saw in the film’s source, New Zealand author Eleanor Catton’s debut novel of the same name (Catton’s follow-up was the Booker Prize-winning epic The Luminaries).

“It’s a very female book, and very stylised,” says Maclean. “There’s a real ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s constructed. I wanted to bring that across in the film.”

All the talk of desire and acting techniques keeps the performances at the front of your mind. The young cast, led by James Rolleston, who you might remember as the kid from Boy (2010), carry the film. Playing young actors who are thrown together in an intense and artificial world doesn’t seem like it would be far from their own experiences.

“It’s certainly true for James,” says Maclean. Rolleston plays “out of his depth” with conviction despite being a seasoned actor. “It was a lot of firsts for him. He’s been in a lot of films, but he’s from a small town. We threw him in the deep end.”

Maclean and her crew cast a wide net to pull the cast together. Some are drama-school kids. Some are non-actors. They were put through an intensive rehearsal and workshopping period, not unlike what we see in the film. It’s this realness that makes their performances so affecting.

“It was like putting them through a little mini drama school,” says Maclean. “It was remarkable to see how they bonded and grew to trust each other.”

The Rehearsal is screening at ACMI from January 18 to February 6. Alison Maclean will be appearing via video link for a Q&A on January 18 as part of the ongoing She Speaks First series of film screenings.