Max is taking his first acting class, and he’s completely new to the environment. Open and interested, he watches eagerly as the other students take the stage with their scene work, which is adjusted and instructed by their teacher, Adam.
Adam is charismatic, committed, passionate, and very, very tough on his students. And Max is increasingly confused and skeptical of the strange acting exercises. But when he takes the stage for his first exercise, he soon discovers that there’s a thin line between class and cult.
Written and directed by Enzo Cellucci and Ash Macnair, this sharply observant drama has its comedic moments, but the dark heart of the film is its portrayal of the slippery slope between creative risk-taking and emotional abuse. The setting of the acting class is a perfect crucible to explore questions of power, trust and the teacher-student relationship. And when the class is for an artistic craft where the raw material is an actor’s very self and emotion, the emotional terrain is especially treacherous.
There’s darkness inherent from the beginning of the film, starting with Max’s strangely uneasy welcome to class from another student, promising that their teacher, Adam, will change his life as he did theirs. Visually, the story takes advantage of the theater and stage setting to create moodier and more theatrical cinematography, sculpting a sense of the ominous with the interplay of lights and shadows.
The writing and storytelling have an arch sense of fun portraying the earnestness of beginning acting, as seen through Max’s disbelieving eyes. Through these exercises — and the lofty adjustments made by Adam — students get confronted with their self-consciousness and mistakes. And they’re often belittled by Adam, who gives brutal criticism in the name of getting to the “truth” of an acting performance.
Adam is played by actor David Krumholtz with a powerful, mysterious performance that balances passion and pretentiousness. He’s permanently “chewing the scenery” as a teacher, but it emerges from an organic place of total commitment to the theatrical art. He also seems to enjoy leveling devastating comments on students themselves with a perverse pleasure.
When Max — played by co-writer and co-director Enzo Cellucci as the straight center of the film — takes the stage to give a monologue from “Of Mice and Men,” he’s not very good, and he starts to chip away at Max. Each interaction betrays Adam’s innate contempt for Max’s performance, which only grows as Max gets worse and worse with each attempt.
When the other students surround him on stage for an exercise designed to get him “out of his head and into his character,” the class takes a darker, shocking turn. But what’s crazy is that the exercise works and Max delivers the first lines of his monologue with raw and riveting emotion. His reaction at the very end, though, provides the final twist of perversity.
“Class” illuminates how far genuinely committed artists go for their art and the strange high of personal transformation. That it comes through such rough methods teases at the breakdown of self and boundaries that must happen — a similar breakdown that happens to those taken in by cults or caught in other emotionally abusive situations. And by noting the pleasure and triumph that Adam feels in exerting his power, we get a sense of the delicate line between art and debasement is — a space ripe for emotional predation as much as revelation.