The Novice

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Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut, The Novice, is a bit like two other films – Black Swan (she admits the influence) and Whiplash (which she worked on as sound editor). Both are stories where extreme physical dedication borders on madness and coaching is a form of abuse. The Novice has its feet in both of those camps too, but it also has something else to say.

Let’s just talk about Isabelle Fuhrman’s face first though. Composed of cubist planes and flat angles, it’s a physiognomy that the camera loves and is capable of registers of emotion that are locked off to other actors. You might remember her as the ominously creepy kid in 2009’s Orphan (there’s a sequel in the works, as I type).

Her face is exactly right, and she is also exactly right in the role of Alex, a new girl at college who puts her shyness and oddness to one side, for a second, to join a rowing squad, gets completely obsessed by the whole thing, and lets it entirely dominate her life, to the point of mad obsession.

So it’s the story of that, obviously, but The Novice is also the story of a try-hard who makes it in life not on natural talent but by simply working harder than everyone else. It’s a story of knowing your limits and accepting limitations. Not that Alex actually does.

It’s a classic three-act structure – set-up, development, payoff – and the parallels with Black Swan are close enough that you could probably, if bored or stuck in solitary confinement, draw plenty of connections between the two.

But detail is all in films like this, and The Novice has good detail. The training sequences are brutal, though Hadaway also wants us to know there’s an ecstatic appeal – sexual, religious – to thrashing yourself to exhaustion on a Rowing Erg (short for ergomoter – a rowing machine to you and me). Alex is seen throwing up with the exertion, pissing her pants at one point and developing increasingly deep sores in the palms of her hands after many hours on the oars.

Alex out on the river
5am starts are a regular thing

Alex also self-harms, which is also brutal, and in Hadaway’s reading of her character this is more a sign of Alex not knowing who she really is than trying to get control. Alex has sex with boys, girls, whoever. She doesn’t really make friends. She isn’t following her star on any level, and is studying physics at university even though she has no real aptitude for it. It’s as if Alex has decided her task in life is to do the things that are the hardest to do. At one point there is a quote from JFK’s speech about going into space – “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”. In this way Alex’s life takes on meaning.

Shot very dark to match Alex’s mindset by DP Todd Martin, it has some nice secondary roles (and everyone in this movie is secondary to Fuhrman/Alex), notably Jonathan Cherry as the amiable, dedicated and refreshingly unpervy Coach Pete and the supermodel Dilone, a teaching assistant who comes as close as anyone to cracking the nut that is the enigmatic Alex.

The rivalry with fellow rower Jamie (Amy Forsyth), which in Black Swan style should be the pivot on which the whole thing swivels, isn’t really well developed enough, and the same goes for many of the other females on the rowing team, who feel underused.

Well acted, well made and familiar, a sketch rather than a portrait, for all its focus on one obsessive individual. Hats off to Fuhrman, though, an actor with real god-given talent, unlike the character she is playing.

The Novice – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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