Review: ‘The Novice

Isabelle Fuhrman Strives For Varsity In Lauren Hadaway's Impressively Intense Rowing Drama

They say there’s no greater zealot than a convert. In Lauren Hadaway’s impressively intense rowing drama The Novice, Isabelle Fuhrman plays Alex Dall, a college freshman striving to make the university team. But Alex doesn’t give off team player vibes; far from it. She’s giving off serious loner vibes but soon becomes obsessed with the physical and emotional demands of the sport.

Hadaway, who served as a sound editor on Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, knows a thing or two about the compulsion to be the best. The interesting thing about Alex is that her aspirations aren’t quite as large. She strives to be good enough to make the varsity squad, even though she’s not as physically gifted as some of the other girls. Academically, Alex pushes herself just as far in her physics studies, sometimes taking tests multiple times just to get it right. This isn’t one of those movies where the educational side gives way to the athletic.

Instead, it’s the human part of Alex that seems to die along the way. She’s like a robot or a doll, and the grueling demand she puts her body under is all just another experience for her. The same goes for Alex’s social life, which finds her experimenting with different relationships. In an early scene, she hits a party and has a lame one-night-stand fuck with a frat boy. At first we think she’s just blowing off steam, but it’s not that. Alex has a frenemy, Jamie (CODA actress Amy Forsyth), who she keeps around seemingly because it’s good to keep your rivals close. In another subplot that could’ve been developed more, Alex has a sexual relationship with her T.A., Dani (Dilone), also because it just seems like something she wanted to try out.

Hadaway’s bold, confident direction matches Alex’s obsessive drive, utilizing a variety of techniques to show the extreme toll she’s putting on her body and the mental fragmentation it causes. An increasingly pulsating score amplifies the tension, setting a Darren Aronofsky-like mood, putting it in the same heightened state as The Wrestler or Black Swan. Fuhrman puts herself through the paces, as well. This is the best role she’s had since Orphan, and that was a very long time ago. The physical challenges just to get acquainted with this demanding character must have been unreal, but Fuhrman more than lives up to it.

The Novice doesn’t go far enough in attempting to explain who Alex is, and that lacking leaves her an unsympathetic figure. But she’s far from an uninteresting one. Anyone who is willing to break themselves in so many ways is worth getting into the boat with and seeing if they can make it across the finish line.

IFC Films has released The Novice into select theaters and digital today.

The Novice
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.