Wri/Dir: Lauren Hadaway | Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Dilone, Amy Forsyth, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Jeni Ross, Eve Kanyo, Nikki Duval, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop | US Thriller 94′
The ‘sports or performance thriller ‘ is fast becoming a sub-genre in its own right: The Novice follows on from the recent skiing drama Slalom (2020) and The Coldest Game (2019), Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and even the recent Israeli drama God of the Piano where the central protagonist is obsessed by chosen field, often to their own detriment.
In Lauren Hadaway’s rowing-related film, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) skulls along in the dark waters of a river, desperate to beat all records, hellbent on her own performance despite being part of a team. Later, on the rowing machine, Dall is enters the ‘zone’ again high on adrenaline and challenging herself to the limit – ignoring an innate lack of talent but turning instead to strategy, hell bent on being better and better. Eventually her desire becomes a unhealthy obsession that somehow feeds on her soul, an all-consuming need to push the body further and further, until she feels physical pain in order to achieve her goal: the Varsity rowing team.
The Novice in actually a film about obsession rather than enjoyment – and Dall has to excel in everything she turns her hand to: be it a sport or a subject at college where she is a ‘Fresher’. Meeting teacher’s assistant Dani (Dilone) is the turning point – she is naturally gifted, relaxed and secure. Their chemistry sizzles for a time despite Dall’s lack of social skills – prickly and awkward – she is not popular, but her obsession soon takes over again and everything suffers in the wake of her drive to succeed. Dall is in flight from herself, restless, constantly on the move. Rowing gives her a ‘raison d’être’.
She does have one other ally in the shape of Jamie (Amy Forsyth), but soon even he is alienated, along with the others, in her desire to be the best. Her sporting prowess defines her, all the pain is worth suffering, or is it? Here – unlike the other films in the genre – there is no prize for Dani’s excellence – only the loneliness of extreme endeavour, and the misery of isolation. There’s a comfort in this mental anguish, it feels familiar – and that reinforcement is the reward for Dall, confirming her habitual unhappiness. This is the status quo that she’s grown used to since childhood. A welcome home from home.
Based on the director’s own experience The Novice is a convincing depiction of character implosion. And Fuhrman gives it her best efforts as Dall in an award-winning turn (Best Actress US Narrative at Tribeca 2021). Todd Martin keeps things suitably dank and murky with his watery visual aesthetic along with Hadaway’s confident direction in an unsettling study of an unbalanced mind. MT
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