Debut director Lauren Hadaway’s examination of obsessive achievement, The Novice, is played out on the US college rowing scene and garnered praise on the 2021 festival circuit. Frequently compared to Whiplash, another portrayal of sadomasochistic perfectionism on which Hadaway worked as sound editor, the movie leans heavily on the intensity of Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall, a rookie rower who joins her university’s novice crew but will physically destroy herself to make it to the top varsity boat, despite limited talent.
Notwithstanding the praise, there is inexperience in The Novice, especially within its first half. Its character development is simplistic, and its direction embraces a heavy-handed soundtrack and symbols in which classical music and overlapping voices represent confusion, while Motown soul equals emotion. Elements of early dialogue are also audience surrogate explanations of the terminology of rowing, and the film is obviously semi-autobiographical: Hadaway was a university rower, and the project feels like an arts graduate wanted to make a film and therefore dramatised themself in the style of her favourite movie.
This is not to say The Novice is a bad film, but possibly an over-hyped one, and the second half definitely has a point to make about driven personalities. Alex’s obsessive and alienating determination to beat more naturally gifted peers makes her highly able, but never the best, and eventually her betters push back against her intensity ruining the rowing club for everyone. Fuhrman’s character represents that person screaming at five-a-side football, that student in the library at 5a.m., that middle manager pushing her team. The question being posed is: if very good is your upper limit, and everybody hates you, is the intensity worthwhile?
The Novice is worth a watch, but unless you’re appreciating Alex’s psychology or awaiting more rowing screen time, it will likely be one-and-done. Fuhrman produces a mighty effort on an unlikeable protagonist, but would have benefited from Hadaway fleshing out the sympathetic secondary figures, such as innately talented crew member Jamie Brill or coaches Pete and Edwards, rather than using them as mere mirrors for Alex’s rage. Dialling back the sound triggers would also have helped. Nonetheless, The Novice is trying to bring a meaningful personality to the screen, via a less seen world, and an interesting but flawed character study should be supported, even if it does not always create a smooth film.
The Novice is available now on digital platforms