Director: Lauren Hadaway
Writer: Lauren Hadaway
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Jonathan Cherry, Dilone, Kate Drummond
Synopsis: A college freshman joins the rowing team and undergoes an intense psychological and physical transformation in pursuit of making the varsity boat.
The strive to be “the best” is a fascinating, but also terrifying aspect of human culture. It can manifest itself in essentially every facet of life, from academics to jobs, and even relationships. One arena where the concept of perfectionism is particularly at the forefront is sports. In that regard, it makes sense that the protagonist of Lauren Hadaway’s thrilling film The Novice would most noticeably display this side of her character through participation on her university’s rowing team.
This protagonist is Alex Dall, played by Isabelle Fuhrman. She’s a freshman at a university who clearly has a strong focus on academics, but also decides to join the rowing team as a novice (basically a walk-on athlete who has to succeed to earn a scholarship). From the very beginning, it’s clear that Alex strives to be flawless in every aspect of her life. This takes the forefront when it comes to rowing, seemingly because it is the most challenging activity she could reasonably pursue. Her unrelenting pursuit to make varsity and be the best novice on the squad results in a psychological journey that becomes more frightful with each passing moment.
Though The Novice is filled with stylistic choices and heart-racing sequences from beginning to end, it is a character study at the heart of it all. Much of Alex’s condition can be implied by the silent but discernible actions she takes along the way. Aside from spending an absurd number of hours in the training room and on the water, cues to her characterization are delivered in situations outside of the realm of rowing. For example, she goes through her exams three times before finally turning them in and spends most of what little free time she has in the library. These moments do as much for the character as the intense scenes in the boat do, though the latter provides plenty of thrilling moments to keep us entertained via quick cuts between closeups of a struggling Alex in the boat and wide shots of the expansive lake that stands before her.
In fact, the one blemish of the film may be the few moments in which it does not trust the audience to fully pick up on these cues. We don’t need Alex’s teaching assistant love interest (Dilone) to mention that Alex likely chose to be a Physics major simply because it’s a difficult subject. We can piece that together from the more subtle aspects of the screenplay. It also comes through perfectly through the fantastic lead performance from Fuhrman, who exudes the emotions and inner thoughts of someone who is clearly dealing with a mental illness and the deep fear that she is not good enough. “Good enough for what?,” some may ask. That’s the question that Alex may be constantly seeking. Hadaway and cinematographer Todd Martin also help relay Alex’s inner struggles through closeups from all angles of her face, rather than just the typical forward looking image. They also capture the physical aspect of this journey, using the camera to hone in on the pain Alex feels throughout her body while trying to reach an unfair standard of fitness.
In many ways, Hadaway’s directorial debut is a cross between Whiplash and Black Swan, two films that also delve into the dangers of seeking perfection in a mostly trivial area of expertise. Like the former, The Novice employs rapid editing courtesy of Hadaway and Nathan Nugent to materialize the frantic nature of Alex’s mind. Oftentimes, great editing is the type that goes completely unnoticed. Here is a case of a film in which the editing is designed to be noticed, as it allows us to experience the sensations felt by the character. This mixes with a quality that made Black Swan so intriguing: a dip into the surreal. There are moments in the film that feature quick cuts to images of a sinister Raven, symbolizing the university’s mascot while also giving the film an ever-darkening sense of peril.
While The Novice is first and foremost a psychological drama, one can’t ignore that it’s also a pretty unique sports film, and one of the best to come from that genre in recent years. Rather than serving as an uplifting story of a college freshman doing what she can to find success, it serves as an exposé into a dark aspect of sports culture that leads to overworked athletes and unnecessary personal rivalries – most notably here between Alex and another novice played by Alex Forsyth. In fact, it can be seen as an overall reflection of the unrealistic expectations and challenges put onto Millenial and Generation-Z individuals in our difficult world. Aside from the deeper meanings, the film is simply a stunning directorial debut for Hadaway. It’s also an early career-defining moment for Fuhrman, who instantly becomes one of the most exciting young actresses by expanding her horizons after previous turns in films such as Orphan and The Hunger Games.