Jun 15, 2021
By Kaveh Jalinous
Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut, The Novice, is a nuanced look at the dangers of competition. The film follows a shy and hard-working college freshman, Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), who decides to join the novice rowing team at her university. From the beginning, viewers know virtually nothing about Dall’s past or why she wants to row. The only thing that is instantly clear is that she works hard, almost obsessively. The film even opens with a scene featuring Dall in a nearly empty lecture hall, using every allotted minute to take her physics test multiple times, trying to catch all of her mistakes.
When Dall overhears another girl, Brill (Amy Forsyth), talking about her hopes to make it to the university’s varsity team to get a scholarship, Dall begins to take rowing even more seriously. It starts with simple things: her trying to cut her rowing times down or her constantly checking the list of everyone’s times to make sure she quickest. Things only escalate as Dall gets more opportunities to practice and compete with the varsity team. Her obsession quickly morphs into something more dangerous as she puts her entire self, physically and mentally, to ensure her success.
From the synopsis alone, The Novice could and will be (it’s even mentioned in Tribeca’s summary of the film) compared to Damien Chazelle’s critically acclaimed 2014 film Whiplash. Both showcase the consequences of one’s thirst and drive to become the best while sacrificing everything in their personal lives in the process – their friendships, their relationships, and their bodies. A major difference between the two films, though, is that The Novice almost strictly focuses on the personal pressures and grit one puts on themselves. The people around Dall – her coaches, her teammates and even her friends – rarely put any pressure on her. All of the pressure is within her mind. Because of this, the film is constantly difficult to watch and process, simply because of the things Dall is willing to do to succeed – not even for love of the sport or a medal, but for her satisfaction.
Performances are key to selling The Novice’s story. Fuhrman’s performance as Dall makes the film. She sinks into her character with unbelievable simplicity, perfectly capturing and portraying how her character’s obsession constantly strengthens throughout the film. Even though some of the film’s ideas have been covered in similar films, Fuhrman is always able to capture the viewer’s attention and make the film feel fresher.
While most of the film is centered around Dall’s journey on the rowing team, there is another plotline as well that briefly runs through the film, exploring the romantic relationship between Dall and the teacher’s assistant of her physics class. While the two’s lighter relationship serves as an interesting juxtaposition to the harsher moments of the rest of the film, their relationship never feels explored enough to make a difference in how the film progresses. It often feels like an odd break from the main themes the story is trying to communicate, and while it does present some important ideas about Dall’s character and social interactions, only including a few scenes with the two of them together mutes most of the impact it could have had.
The Novice mimics most elements of a directorial debut, including aggressively edited montages, incomplete character development and a lack of focus. Even with these setbacks though, the film provides a thought-provoking look at the shared human goal of succeeding, whatever the cost.
Author rating: 5.5/10
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