“You finished first. Why’d you take it twice?”
This simple question asked of –but not answered by– the main character of The Novice might tell you all you need to know about her. In the films opening scenes, she is sitting at a desk, chewed up pencil in hand, finishing a test for the second time because she is cannot let herself be anything other than the best at what she does. Make no mistake, dear reader, this is not a story of admirable ambition but rather a story of obsession, the lengths one will go to because of it, and the effect one might have on those around them.
In the following scenes Alex joins the university novice rowing team alongside Jamie (Alex Forsyth) and her nature takes over almost immediately. Alex checks every time to beat and tries to beat them. When a spot opens up on the varsity team, a far more competitive level, Alex pushes herself to the very brink to make the cut. When she finds out that Jamie did as well, well, let’s say that things only get more intense.
Alex trains non stop. Starting at 5am every day, using the teams practice facilities when the rest of the team is on break, and causing her grades to falter and what few personal relationships to suffer. All this while scribbling notes about technique and race times and tormenting herself mentally and emotionally the point where the coaches basic instructions on how to row (legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs) becomes an overwhelming thought cycle in her mind and the teams raven mascot itself seems to come to life to harrow her through races. She develops calluses on blisters on calluses, develops nosebleeds, and refuses to stop at one point until she literally collapses and urinates on herself.
Fuhrman is, as they say, on fire in this movie. Her performance as a woman obsessed could easily have been one-note, but the depth and nuance of her performance, as well the level of psychological distress she can convey with just a few words of body language, is incredible. This is a role that she has clearly dived into headfirst and whole hog (including a training regimen in which she reportedly gained 10 pounds of muscle). It helps, I think that, that writer/director Lauren Hadaway based the story at least in part on her own university experiences rowing and that the Fuhrman and Hadaway seem to be in complete sync.
Speaking of which, Hadaway is a long time sound engineer and ADR supervisor but has a clear talent for directing. Many will compare this film to 2014s Whiplash (which she worked on in the sound department), and the comparison is not an unfair one. Each film is a portrait of obsession, and Hadaway leans into some of the same tight shots and cuts that the earlier film does but mixes in some of her own inspiration and imagery that works to highlight Alex’s affected mental state.
The Novice might not be perfect, but with an intense and all-in performance from Isabelle Fuhrman and an excellent script and direction from Lauren Hadaway, it’s one of the most exciting first features of the last few years and one of the best films of 2021 so far.
The Novice played as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
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