There’s plenty to admire in The Novice, but a surfeit of ambition and an overreliance on certain aggressive formal qualities bogs down its execution.
Drawing from her own experiences as a college athlete, writer/director Lauren Hadaway has crafted a bold debut feature, a startlingly immersive portrait of ambition curdling into obsession. Taking place in the competitive world of rowing, a physically demanding sport that emphasizes repetitive, mechanical movement, The Novice follows freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), an overachiever who is determined to move up from the novice squad to the JV crew. Her single-mindedness is matched by the film’s aggressive formal qualities, which eschew much in the way of traditional narrative for a more impressionistic, experiential approach; indeed, this arch stylization is both invigorating and, ultimately, the film’s biggest flaw.
Comparisons to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash are perhaps inevitable, what with such similarly conceived protagonists, but Hadaway’s film owes more to the rat-ta-tat editing rhythms of Darren Aronofsky’s work. We learn materially little about Dall, who barely utters a word for the first 15 minutes or so of The Novice. We are, however, locked in to her perspective, as she rushes to finish an exam (it’s eventually revealed that she takes tests 3 or 4 times per, trying to achieve better scores), then frantically running to make the first meeting of the beginners rowing crew. She takes notes while the other girls chat, declining to mingle and instead taking in details with furtive, harried eyes. From there, it’s a constant barrage of montages and ostentatious technique, as Dall furiously trains, pushing herself to the limit and then beyond. It’s a noble effort that seeks to illuminate a character’s subjective point of view through action instead of words, and it works for about an hour or so.
Various entreaties to “have fun” and “relax” are repeated throughout the film, to the point of becoming a desperate plea on the part of the people watching Dall implode. She’s wound so tight that it seems like she could snap at any moment, with various sequences taking on the patina of a horror film, as Dall pushes her body to yet further extremes and enters a fugue state of sorts. She frequently vomits from the exertion, at one point even passing out and wetting herself. But none of this seems to phase her; when her classmates go home for winter break, she continues to train, determined to get some kind of edge over her competition. Dall has a roommate who we see very little of, and she forms a friendship of sorts with another member of the novice crowd, Jaime (Amy Forsyth), who desperately needs the full scholarship that accompanies making the JV squad. But Dall isn’t motivated by money, or even necessarily any deep-seated competitiveness — she seems to only really ever be competing against her own body, her own limitations. The question of her motivation constitutes the psychological undercurrent of the film, which never offers a pat answer, but instead a number of possible avenues. When Dall begins dating her physics TA Dani (New York-based model Dilone), the film eases off some of its more overt stylistic overkill, suggesting the calming effect that Dani’s presence has on her younger paramour. It’s these (too infrequent) scenes between the two women that mostly fully realize some of Dall’s tortured psyche, her need to constantly work the hardest in some masochistic quest to prove her own worth.
But eventually, the film’s more aggressive qualities, much like Dall’s personality, begin to overstay their welcome. There’s an increasing abundance of on-the-nose symbolism, and as Dall’s erratic behavior begins to tilt into full blown psychological horror territory, a pronounced Black Swan influence rears its ungainly head. It’s clear that Hadaway doesn’t have much use for subtlety, and the result is that there’s no rhythm, no ebb and flow to the proceedings. When everything is pitched to the rafters from the start, there’s nowhere left to go. Fuhrman is remarkable in a tough, demanding role, and Hadaway’s assertive camera surveys her body, in awe of its physical ability rather than in any act of sexualization. All told, there’s a lot to like in The Novice, and if it suffers from a surfeit of ambition, it’s at least trying something, which is a valuable currency in this age of template and rehash. For her next project, maybe Hadaway can figure out how to stick the landing. She’s certainly done enough here to be rooting for her.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.