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the novice review
A college freshman pushes herself to her limits to make the rowing team.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lauren Hadaway

Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond

the novice poster

You might want to perform some stretching exercises before you sit down to watch writer/director Lauren Hadaway's feature debut The Novice, as after 94 minutes of watching its anti-heroine push herself to physical limits you may suffer from second-hand cramp.

the novice review

Isabelle Fuhrmann plays Alex, a freshman student at a prestigious college. She's studying Physics, but it's a subject she seems to struggle with as she's forced to repeat tests multiple times. She's determined to succeed nevertheless. Alex applies this determination to an extra-curricular activity, trying out for the college women's rowing team. It's a sport that Alex seems to know little about, as though she drew it out of a hat, but from the off she applies herself to the discipline in a manner that suggests earning a spot in the top boat has been her lifelong goal.

The Novice is a unique mix of sports movie and psychological horror, a lesbian Top Gun with moments of almost Cronenbergian body-horror. Hadaway served as the sound editor on Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and spending weeks examining that movie's details has clearly had a large influence on her directorial debut. Like Chazelle's movie, The Novice features a determined protagonist who focusses so much on their goal that they exclude everything and everyone else from their lives, lest they prove a distraction. Of course, both drummer and rower are essentially cogs in a greater machine, which make the narcissism of the respective protagonists counter-productive. For Alex, other people are simply obstacles to be out-paced, even her own teammates.

the novice review

Visually, The Novice shares a similar aesthetic to Whiplash, reducing a venerable learning institution to a shadowy, dimly lit facility. The staccato editing of Whiplash is also employed, though not always successfully here. Hadaway takes a leaf from Michael Powell's book, shooting the racing scenes not in the convention of a sports movie but rather maintaining sole focus on Alex's mental and physical exertions, similar to how Powell staged the dance numbers in The Red Shoes. This seems jarring at first until we understand that Alex isn't so much concerned in beating her opponents as in beating herself. Elsewhere however we get musical montages that veer a little too close to Lucozade commercials, and some of the visual tics trigger flashbacks to the irritating mannerisms of '90s Oliver Stone.

There's something refreshing about Hadaway's ambiguity regarding her protagonist. It's left to the viewer to decide whether Alex if the movie's hero or villain, whether we should cheer on her relentlessness or worry about her mental state. While she seems like she'd be hard work at the dinner table, I will say this for Alex – at a time when everyone expects a medal for participating, it's thrilling to watch someone push themselves to their limits.

the novice review

The same might be said about the young actress portraying Alex. Fuhrmann loses herself in this role as much as Alex loses herself in rowing. She's been around for well over a decade now, but has struggled to find good roles after her breakout in 2009's Orphan. Like Alex, Fuhrmann seizes this opportunity at a rare lead role with both hands until her palms bleed, exerting herself to a degree that's physically tiring for the viewer but never less than compelling. Based on her performance here, Fuhrmann has certainly earned a seat on the big boat.

The Novice
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.