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Review: The Novice – “An intense and riveting character study”

Isabelle Fuhrman as ‘Alex Dall’ in Lauren Hadaway’s THE NOVICE.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

From the frantic opening sequence of Lauren Hadaway‘s The Novice, it is made known this film isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s a film whose main character exudes tension and anxiety, and its director unapologetically makes you feel the same until the end credits roll.  In an assured, confident feature directorial debut from Hadaway, The Novice is the type of movie that could get lost in the deluge of cinematic offerings this time of year, yet undoubtedly deserves attention.

It begins as Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), is checking and re-checking her work on an exam, forcing her to sprint in order to make the first meeting of the novice rowing club at her college.  She’s the type of girl who has always flown under the radar.  She’s had to study twice as hard to be even close to the best, while others putting in way less effort sail past her in achievement.  So as Alex joins this group of beginners in a sport she doesn’t know, she throws herself in the only way she knows how – completely.  As she leaves each practice, she will always pass by a mirror that tells her “remember your competition.”

But her competition is also in natural athlete Jamie (Amy Forsyth) who barely breaks a sweat while breaking records.  She’s there to win a scholarship, to make the varsity team, and now it’s also Alex’s goal.  She doesn’t want to be the best, she needs to be, and she’ll push her body and mind’s boundaries to get there.  Alex is often found repeating or writing the movements “Legs, body, arms. Arms, body, legs” but, as her obsession with rowing grows, she becomes increasingly unhinged.  Even her new relationship with her former teachers assistant, Dani (Dilone) falters as she warns Alex, “You gotta know when to quit.”  But she can’t.  It’s lonely at the top, a fact Alex seems to know all too well, and she’s ready to push away anyone who comes between her and success, even at the expense of her own physical and mental health.

Even before reading the press notes for this film, it’s easy to see parallels between The Novice and 2014’s Whiplash (where Hadaway actually worked as a sound editor).  The obsessive need and desire to be at the top of your game, whether it’s in sports, academics, or music is a not uncommon plot device.  More still, as Alex’s character begins to spiral, the 2010 film Black Swan (another of the director’s favourite movies) becomes increasingly influential.  Yet Hadaway fully embraces these predecessors while making this film distinctly her own.  The director, who also penned the script, was herself a collegiate rower and she doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant truths of the sport, often visceral and brutal.  It creates a raw and gritty backdrop to this character study that is often, in contradiction, made beautiful by cinematography from Todd Martin.

The Novice premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival where it went on to win Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film, and Martin won for cinematography.  They are well deserved accolades, and it’s also easy to see why Fuhrman was awarded best actress at the festival for her turn as Alex Dall.  The actor immerses herself in Alex so completely that she is impossible to forget, fully taking on the challenges each and every scene deals to her.  She transforms from a nervous student lacking confidence to an intense and forceful competitor, often terrifying in her obsession.  It’s a star turn for Fuhrman, who should become a more prominent fixture on screen with this credit.

It may be hard for some to comprehend why Alex behaves the way she does.  You have to wait a while to have the main character spell out the root of her obsessive, competitive nature, but for any over-achiever it’ll sound at least vaguely familiar.  For others, The Novice is still an intense and riveting character study.  It’s a slippery slope, trying to overtake your competitors, but it can be even more treacherous trying to overcome your own internal need for accomplishment.  The question truly is, as The Novice thrillingly explores, whether the eventual goal is worth the price of the journey, and if happiness is found if you get there.

The Novice is available in theatres and on demand December 17th.

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