An extraordinary debut feature from writer-editor-director Lauren Hadaway, The Novice is as compelling and physically tense inducing film as you will see this year – a stunning film.
Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a college freshman, joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost.
From the first moment of The Novice, we become aware of Alex’s efforts to obtain success. She hurries through her exam and completes it first, notices that everyone is still working on theirs. Fearing she has made a mistake she immediately and painstakingly word for word goes through the exam again to see if her answers are 100% right. Eventually leaving her to be the last person to finish, using every second of the allotted time to make it perfect. We all know an Alex, the type of person who carries a notebook full of scribbles and ramblings that only she would understand. The type to underline a word dozens of times to make sure she remembers it. She is a woman in search of that sadly ever-fleeting endorphin rush that success in whatever form brings.
Isabelle Fuhrman throws everything into her portrayal of Alex; there is so much physicality in her performance that you become shattered by watching her. She has that brilliant ability to sink into her character that you believe every little thing that is happening before you. The fact that at the beginning of the film you really are rooting for her as a character to go on and reach her goals despite her obsessive nature. Only for Fuhrman and Hadaway to amp up just how one direction determined Alex is, is a testament not only to the script but the performer.
It could be so easy just to tell the tale of how Alex is only trying to beat her friend Jamie (Amy Forsyth) a fellow novice to that spot on the varsity team. However, it becomes more apparent that Alex’s goal is something far greater than that. While yes she wants to beat Jamie, her true competition is herself. This is despite knowing that Jamie needs to get onto the team for her scholarship and to remain at the University. Alex doesn’t have such reasoning, she just wants to prove that everyone that she can meet her aims.
Which makes the decision to choose rowing as the sport for the story, all the better. The wonderful and equally devastating thing about rowing is that all that matters is that final time. You are almost always searching for that personal best, even if you do not think you are. You want to improve and improve time after time continually; how else do you know if you are getting better?
As a runner, and someone who loves the rowing machine. I have even fallen victim to such moments that happen in the film. If you fail to reach that distance in the desired time, disappointment and anger rise within you. Thoughts race through your mind as you try to figure out what went wrong. Worst of all, even if you beat that time, you are already thinking of beating the time you just set.
Constant improvement has you actually stuck in a cruel limbo. The joys of reaching your goal are so fleeting, they may as well have not happened. Then, when you do improve, it becomes so addicting to see your own improvement or for others to congratulate you that you fail to realise what is happening. This is where Alex finds herself, but as shown in The Novice‘s opening, she is a person with an all or nothing approach to everything she does.
Writer-Editor-Director Hadaway makes one point as clear as day with The Novice, that there is an ever growing emptiness within her protagonist. To achieve what she desires, everyone else gets pushed to the side no matter how much they try to be there for her. So blinkered to her own emptiness that only destruction awaits Alex. Hadaway shows this increasing emptiness everywhere in The Novice, be it the tunnel where the rowers train that is almost always shrouded in darkness or the fact that even when Alex is around others, the camera mostly focuses on her as she is a million miles away, calculating how to improve that next row or test.
With Fuhrman’s Alex becoming more unraveled and beaten down as her journey continues, everything around her seems distant. That training facility seems like an endless catacomb that Alex cannot escape from (even if she wanted to). She has stepped to far into this world that only by reaching her goal will she get that moment to breathe. This leaves our protagonist and us as the audience feeling more claustrophobic as she delves deeper and deeper into her obsession.
Hadaway focuses on the unshakable determination and obsession that Alex has in The Novice, conveying it quite magnificently. She purposely disorientates and immerses the audience. Whether that is visually or audibly, she has such a firm grip on us that we are dragged along with little option but to see where this story ends. There are quite a few similarities to Whiplash and Black Swan here, but that is no bad thing, and there is more than enough to differentiate the two.
Where other films are willing to settle on standard shots for training montages or even when in an exam. Hadaway and cinematographer Todd Martin conjure up some creative angles that strike you immediately. They brought anxiety to proceedings and coupled with the excellent work of co-editor Nathan Nugent and Sound Designer Gina Keller. Her entire teams ability to immerse us with what is happening with Alex. Even if those moments are for just a few seconds at a time, needs to be seriously commended. You are consumed almost submerged in her consciousness for the entire 85 minutes of the film and only when the credits hit are you able to come up to the surface and breathe again. It cannot be understated how remarkable this film is.
The Novice is a powerfully stylish and dark piece, a sensational feature debut from a filmmaker who we should see a lot of in the future with a standout intoxicating performance from Fuhrman. Confident and polished, this is one of the best films of the year.
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