Director: Lauren Hadaway
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Dilano, Jonathan Cherry
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is in a hurry. A freshman at university with more than a touch of competitiveness about her, she joins the campus’ novice rowing team at the start of the school year and quickly falls into a pattern of increasingly intense and obsessive behaviour. Where her peers are seeking fun, Alex is all-or-nothing; an approach she seems to adopt in most aspects of her life.
The Novice is the latest in a loose subgenre that track the inevitable downward spirals such myopic pursuits can lead to, and sits somewhere in the midway between the likes of Black Swan and Whiplash. Like Aronofsky’s macabre ballet movie, Lauren Hadaway’s film indulges in wince-worthy body horror to facilitate a sense of morbid endurance and seld abuse. Chazelle’s piece shows it’s influence in the stylistic flourishes; the use of woozy deep focus, sweaty trippiness and the obstinance of it’s protagonist.
Both of these touchstones study characters vying with a particular ‘other’. For Nina Sayers in Black Swan it’s the ghost of her mother’s career, or that of the esteemed yet fallen Beth played by Winona Ryder. While Whiplash‘s Andrew is caught in a toxic battle of wills with J. K. Simmons’ blowhard teacher Fletcher. Alex – and The Novice – differs from these examples in that there is no ‘other’ for it’s lead to conquer. Her affable coach (Jonathan Cherry) is always urging her to relax; her teammates quickly recognise her behaviour as mentally circumspect; even her furtive love interest Dani (Dilone) urges her to just quit. The Novice is about a particular psychopathology in which the crushing, torturous drive originates within. As a sign below a dirty mirror in the training room so spikily asserts “Remember your competition”. The only person looking to defeat Alex is herself.
Where does such a mindset begin? The Novice is rather coy in addressing this. Alex is, for a time, something of a blank page. We’re encouraged to imprint onto her. To guess the whys and wherefores. Mid-film, a passionate conversation over a game of pool allows Alex a degree of justification. She keenly likens her attitude to that of the aspirations of the space race, quoting JFK. It is the spirit of adversity and the overcoming of presumed limits that drives her.
Hadaway’s film questions where the line is between doing something “because it is hard” and openly punishing yourself. Early glimpses of scratches and scars offer a blink-and-you’ll miss- it window into another side of Alex’s private life, and her approach to rowing quickly comes to feel like an extension of other efforts at self-harming. One might well assume that such impulses originate in abuse, but The Novice prefers not to specify, letting the viewer draw their own conclusions about how or where this all began for Alex.
It certainly does her no favours. Her attitude and outlook is challenging to all around her, while also expressive of a certain level of necessary exhaustion felt by a lot of young people presently. Alex’s rowing can feel like a metaphor for the economic pressures a lot of us our feeling right now. The world can feel like a rigged game; besting it can seem intimidating if not downright impossible. Only the privileged can survive.
Classism is material to The Novice. For Alex’s teammate Jamie (Amy Forsyth), competing in rowing is an opportunity to best the “silver spoon bitches” elsewhere in the sport; to prove herself worthy of sharing space with the nepotism babies. Hadaway keeps Alex’s motivations self-driven, but she makes space in her narrative to acknowledge class disparity as a viable source of competitiveness.
In the latter half of the film, Hadaway introduces an elemental threat to Alex, as she begins rowing solo in the rain; her varsity coach (Kate Drummond) warning her against the risk of lightning. This becomes the gun on the wall, so to speak; a credible danger that imbues the finale with some tangible suspense.
The Novice is about beating one’s self. For the most part it paints such compulsions as psychologically unhealthy (the make-up department charts a pronounced withering in Fuhrman’s appearance, visually documenting her deterioration), but the film also subtly asks what if this cycle of behaviour simply works for some people. Still, it is far from an endorsement.
It is an engrossing calling card for both Fuhrman (a bravura, physically committed performance) and Hadaway as director, while Alex Weston provides a sinuous score that steers the film through long stretches. We’re left wondering what’s next for Alex; when and how will this cycle begin again? But, also – and as excitingly – what’s next for Fuhrman, and for Hadaway.