THE NOVICE (2021)


Greetings again from the darkness. The debut feature film from writer-director Lauren Hadaway is not the inspirational sports movie we’ve come to expect. There are no last second heroics. No Gatorade showers. No coaches being hoisted on the players’ shoulders. In fact, despite being centered on a college rowing team, this is much more of a disturbing psychological thriller than a sports movie. And it’s a pretty darn good one at that.

Isabelle Fuhrman (ORPHAN, 2009) stars as Alex Dall, a college freshman who, despite no athletic background, decides to join the novice rowing team run by Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry). We immediately recognize that Alex falls on the obsessive side of personality types, as she immerses herself in techniques, record times, and relentless practice. But this trait isn’t limited to rowing, as Alex milks every possible second on Physics exams by going over and over her answers until Dani (Dilone), the Teaching Assistant, annoyingly calls ‘time’. Alex lives her life by checking boxes: exhaustive rowing, studying, one night stand, etc. She must defeat each day, and is the definition of perpetual motion, albeit a bit skittish.

Even though Alex makes no effort to bond with her teammates, we initially find ourselves rooting for her simply because of her determination and commitment. Our rooting soon turns to concern and ultimately shock as we watch Alex push herself to extreme limits both physically and mentally. With the possibility of things settling down a bit as Alex and Dani find comfort in each other, the hope is short-lived as Alex dives right back into obsessive training that results in shredded hands and mental anguish. We hear the voices from inside her head and realize this goes way beyond someone pushing themselves to succeed. Self-harm and isolation take over from Alex’s chant of “legs-body-arms”. As an actor, Ms. Fuhrman never backs down – it’s quite a performance.

Filmmaker Hadaway farms her time as a college rower, and includes the character of Jamie Brill (an excellent Amy Forsyth, CODA) so that we have a legitimate comparison to an athlete pursuing excellence in a more acceptable manner. Alex’s obsession is nightmarish and carries a horror film vibe. This makes an insightful statement on society’s unhealthy drive for excellence and perfection in all things. Ms. Hadaway uses quick edits, sound, and color tones as the film shifts moods. WHIPLASH (Hadaway served as Sound Editor) and BLACK SWAN may be the best comparisons for obsessive drive to achieve a goal, but Alex takes it even more extreme. She never once merrily rows down the stream. A terrific opening drone shot of a boat on the water appears to be serene, but when it reoccurs later, context is provided. Here’s hoping Lauren Hadaway has more oars in her cinematic boat.

In select theaters and On Demand beginning December 17, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: