Writer/director Lauren Hadaway’s dour, waterlogged thriller The Novice is driven by Isabelle Fuhrman’s explosive performance as obsessive rower Alex. It is a tense and enthralling debut feature, brimming with harsh imagery and fully-forming Alex’s troubled character. While I expected a bigger crescendo of dramatic release at the end, this is an impeccably directed and acted film. What lengths would you go to be #1?
Winning is everything to Alex. She is completely obsessed with being at the top, whether that means taking down her high school valedictorian just for high fives and a podium speech, or making the varsity team for novice rowers, no matter what the consequence. Her novice rowing coach, Pete (Jonathan Cherry), notices a lot of potential in Alex. When the opportunity arises for Alex to proceed to varsity, even if she needs to attend a 5AM practice, she instantly jumps at the chance. Her competitive nature starts take over her entire existence, as Alex becomes less of a team player and more laser-focused on being the absolute best of the best.
I learned numerous fun tidbits about rowing that I was completely blind to before watching, including that rowing is not about arm strength, but it’s “60-70% lower body.” Rhythm and timing is everything and is key to building up speed. I learned all about seat races, ‘rowing crab’ accidents, and the definition of a ‘coxswain.’ Lauren Hadaway’s personal touches based on her actual experiences as a rower add authenticity and realism. Fun facts about rowing though take a definite backseat to the compelling character of Alex and Fuhrman’s portrayal to her manic, unnerving commitment to excellence.
Alex comes across practically subhuman at times. She goes to a frat party with Jamie (Amy Forsyth) just so she can “get the drunk college one night stand out of the way.” There is no sense of enjoyment or fun that Alex is ever able to achieve; her focus on perfection robs her of standard human thoughts and feelings. The closest Alex gets to real connection is in her relationship with Dani (Dilone), yet even there she seems to be missing a vital piece to her personality. She always needs answers and goals, stretching herself to the furthest reaches of her limits.
A deeper look into Alex’s mental state arrives late in the game, during a nasty scene that should carry its own trigger warning. The use of music and sound to convey Alex’s emotions and mental state are executed flawlessly. It is a combination of the erratic sound with Fuhrman’s raw talent that molds Alex Dall into an unforgettable obsessive. For the longest time, Isabelle Fuhrman’s role in Orphan has been my all-time favorite of hers; this film makes a convincing argument that The Novice might be her greatest achievement yet.
The Tribeca catalogue selection suggests similarities to Whiplash, and it is a perfectly apt comparison. Both films find the lead striving for an almost unattainable level of perfection, mentally and physically deteriorating in the process. The two things I don’t think work quite so well here are the occasional use of symbolism, as well as the ending itself, which I personally would have liked with just a tad more violent, visceral impact. Otherwise, The Novice is a terrific, intense thriller that reminds the audience of Isabelle Fuhrman’s immeasurable talents and the importance of a feminine touch in telling expressly female-led stories.
The Novice premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, June 13th.