Eve though the Tribeca Film Festival hit, The Novice, has some problems regarding its narrative and pacing, Lauren Hadaway’s stylish directing and Isabelle Furhman’s great performance elevate it to create a cutthroat and tension-filled film about “ax to grind” compulsion.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman) is a queer college freshman who wants to join her university’s rowing team. When she hears about the chance of getting onto the varsity boat, Dall takes on an obsessive endurance test to make sure she gets what she wants no matter the cost. She pushes herself to the limit just to outperform her teammates and the other novices, causing her to be alienated by everyone around her.
Who would have guessed that a film about rowing could be so stress-inducing? The freezing waters, the shattered hands, and the mindset of a killer who wants to be at the top make The Novice more engaging than one would initially think. This film came out of the blue at the Tribeca Film Festival and won several awards, including “Best Actress”, “Best Cinematography”, and “Best Narrative Feature Film”. After finally watching it I can see why people became attached to and attracted by it. It’s a tale of the “underdog” who breaks her mind, body, and soul to get what she wants, but what’s most interesting is her purpose in doing so. Why is Alex Dall doing too much? Why is she “antagonizing” everyone she sees as competition?
All these questions are answered, however, not in the way one would like. Its narrative gets a bit repetitive and we all know where it will lead up to, especially if you have seen Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a film Hadaway also worked on that received similar acclaim. It begins to drag a bit during the last act, not to a great extent, but you do wish it would take a different direction. Nevertheless, what’s most impressive about The Novice is both Lauren Hadaway’s impressive directorial skills and Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance. When it comes to these types of stories about compulsion, there needs to be a sensation of running out of breath or having no time to breathe as well as a lead who can encapsulate that feeling while adding even more tension via her mental state.
Thankfully and impressively, Hadaway and Fuhrman do a great job capturing those sensations. Hadaway uses her past experiences as a rower to guide cinematographer Todd Martin through an anxiety-inducing “race for success”, causing the film to be in equal parts good looking and pressured, in a good way. Then there’s Isabelle Fuhrman’s excellent performance. Most of the characters she plays are centered around angst. Whether it be Esther from Orphan or Clover from The Hunger Games, that sense of sheer anger and trepidation follows her throughout the film. Yet here, Hadaway gives her more to chew on, giving her an opportunity that she hasn’t received before and, with it, delivering a nail-biting act.
In addition, the string-filled score by Alex Weston helps to mellow some of the grounded scenes and intensify the ones with bated breath. Although its narrative isn’t strong as a whole, the directorial heft by Hadaway elevates the weaker elements of the story. Keep this in mind, this is her directorial debut. As a result, it feels like a continuous 96-minute rowing race that accelerates within each minute, going faster and faster each time around. That approach may not work for the majority of films, but it does in The Novice due to the themes of longing and mania as well as its subject matter.