The thing about smaller movies, like The Novice, is I wouldn’t hear anything about them after their release. Writer/director Lauren Hadaway’s debut first premiered this past summer at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Best U.S. Narrative Feature prize, and it already earned five Independent Spirit Awards. So again, word of mouth got to me when something in me wanted to watch this drama for myself. But the noticeable after this was over was it made me glad I didn’t have the confidence to try out any sports in school.
What’s the Story: Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team, where she, along with fellow freshman Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth), is known as the novices. She sees herself as a very driven woman who works herself hard, and that comes into play as Alex is practicing harder and harder to prove she can climb to the top of the ranks. With her strong determination, Alex pushes herself on a journey to make it to the top boat of the varsity.
Will everyone relate to what our main character is going through to be the absolute best in their line of passion. I guess it depends if you consider yourself very competitive. But, even if I couldn’t, that doesn’t make The Novice a brilliant character study to ride along with. Because Hadaway was actually on the crew team at Southern Methodist University, it’s incredible for a former sound designer turned director to show how one will go through the year of the main character, having us learn first and it isn’t easy as it looks. An interesting choice to set a sports drama in the world of rowing, but she made the viewer evident in the headspace of what Alex is feeling, through immense tension and anxiety that had me fear for her throughout. However, she also understands that she isn’t somebody willing to give up when she becomes very obsessive, which drives Alex to a breaking point at some point.
Isabelle Fuhrman is best known for her iconic role as Ester in 2009’s Orphan, where she was straight-up creepy in there, but her performance here as Alex might be career-defining. She delivers an intense role that has us really pushing her forward to being the best out of the rest of the girls but know she has to take things easy. Not for her, though. The intelligent mind she has on her, evident in checking her work on a physics test more than twice, has her calculating the right amount of time to go faster and training basically every day, even during breaks. In Alex’s world, she’s holding everything inside to now slow her teammates how she’s feeling until later on, as Fuhrman represents student-athletes pushing themselves off almost being destroyed mentally. It’s a role that isn’t getting talked about now, but we should since her commitment is on display vibrantly.
Amy Forsyth, who was recently in CODA, is equally fantastic as Jamie. They both begin as new teammates you think will have each other’s back, but soon turns into a rival, becoming a frenemy of sorts as she’s working hard to get a scholarship.
To get a vibe comparable to Black Swan or Whiplash, the film follows the same framework as everything else, but Hadaway, like Alex, enjoys a task in front of her with a portrayal that is too believable. This shows rowing isn’t a silly sport, and the only times I’ve thought about it are the Olympics, The Social Network, and the Take That music video for “The Flood.” The rowing sequences when they were practicing early in the morning or just in the training room on the rowing machines were quite interesting through each of them. But I couldn’t help but think about how well the sound design and the incredible score by Alex Weston that‘s more effective without knowing what comes next, along with music cues to contrast a moment of sorrow tension perfectly.
Overall, The Novice is Black Swan in the world of rowing, and it makes for an engrossing debut from writer/ director Lauren Hadaway. Isabelle Fuhrman gives off a challenging performance that shouldn’t go unnoticed. This is a huge recommendation for this psychological character study, and I’m gonna be on board with what the director comes up with next.
Grade: 8/10 (B+)
The Novice is available to watch at home.