Writhing in pain, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) skulks through the dark shadows of Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature The Novice like a female Gollum, driven only by her obsession with rowing. Though she’s a member of her college team, Dall rarely acknowledges the young women in the boat with her when she’s on the water. And neither do we. Her disinterest is our disinterest.
Hadaway leads us through the world as Dall sees it — as a collection of challenges to conquer, with people mainly serving as opposition. When she trains on her rowing machine at practice, everyone around her falls away in her mind and on the screen. At first, her experiences rowing are euphoric with romantic music and a dreamy tone. Then, slowly, the act of rowing curdles into something monstrous. This is not a feel-good sports film. This is a film about an all-consuming, unhealthy fixation on suffering.
A darkly thrilling debut.
Dall is a college freshman determined to make varsity on her rowing team. In the meantime, she excels as a novice despite not being particularly skilled on the water. Dall compensates for this by embracing strategy, turning the sport into a shifting equation that keeps getting longer. She’s not good in Physics either, but that doesn’t stop her from majoring in it. When she isn’t obsessing over rowing, she’s obsessing over improving her mediocre grades in the class.
That’s where she meets a sexy teacher’s assistant named Dani (Dilone) who is everything that Dall isn’t — relaxed, funny and secure in herself. The two women have great chemistry and their scenes together are among the most playful in the film. For a moment, it seems like our heroine might learn how to relax. But despite her paramour’s best efforts, Dall continues to toil as her health, grades, and social skills deteriorate.
There indeed is much toiling in The Novice, which snagged the top narrative feature prize at Tribeca last month. Dall barely eats or sleeps. Save for the occasional party or concert, she has no life to speak of. We never see her relaxing in her dorm. Aside from her partner, Dall’s sole friend is Jamie (Amy Forsyth), the only person on the rowing team who likes her. But the moment she gets an opportunity to best Jamie, she chooses her ambition. Dall can’t seem to help being calculating, even as she fails time and time again, alienating everyone around her.
She is always in motion — running from practice to class and back again. Even her eyes remain active, darting hungrily as she trains. But Dall’s movements are mechanical. She’s all bone and sharp edges. When she rows she throws her entire body into the action with no style or restraint; she doesn’t pace herself or wait to catch her breath. When her coaches give her guidance on how to be careful, relax and have fun, she lashes out, treating it as an insult to her work ethic. Dall is the kind of person who believes that we were put on Earth to work as hard as possible, regardless of the frequent lack of reward. Her self-perception is defined by the brutality that she can endure while remaining alive.
But then there are times when it seems like what Dall really wants is death. In one heartbreaking scene, Dani begs Dall to stop rowing, citing the physical and emotional pain she’s watched her endure. As they crouch down in the bathroom, Dani tries to embrace her stubborn, suffering girlfriend. This is the only scene where someone is able to break down Dall’s cruel, cutthroat facade, revealing a young woman who refuses to give herself a break. Dani knows that despite all her grit, Dall is still just a kid on her own for the first time in her life. Rowing gives her a sense of purpose — something to fixate on, drown in and be engulfed by. And by the time she realizes that she needs to get out, there are no helping hands left to save her.
The Novice shares narrative and cinematic similarities to films like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (which Hadaway worked on as sound editor) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. All are films about solitary people with few meaningful connections, consumed by their respective passions. They’re constantly bleeding and grunting, their faces contorting in pained concentration. The world they live in is full of shadows and darkness, with heavily saturated, grotesque uses of color. There’s a dampness to certain scenes, as if the sweat of the characters has spilled onto the screen. In The Novice, these qualities create a full, nightmarish sensory experience.
But unlike its predecessors, The Novice does not reward its heroine — or the audience — with the catharsis of triumph. Despite their despair, the tortured artists in both Whiplash and Black Swan see victory in the end, justifying their self-destruction. These narratives enforce the idea that pain always prevails and extreme measures are necessary for excellence.
In contrast, The Novice laments the sadness and pain that comes with self-isolation, both personally and professionally. In this respect it has much more in common with Aronofsky’s much quieter effort, The Wrestler. Dall, like Ram (Mickey Rourke), is more interested in punishment than success. This is exemplified by her declining help in any way: Dall refuses to cooperate with her teammates or accept instruction from her coaches, and she suffers for it. The Novice knows that embracing collaboration would save Dall, but she doesn’t want to be saved.
The Novice is equal parts sports film, coming-of-age drama and psychological thriller. It’s a horrific tale of a young woman hurtling directly toward failure and welcoming the pain that comes with it. Hadaway — who based the film on her own experiences rowing in college — brings out the best in Fuhrman, who gives a searing, star-making performance as Dall. Cinematographer Todd Martin adds a sickly green tint to Dall’s later rowing scenes, creating the illusion of drowning in murky water.
Dark, unnerving and thrilling, The Novice is poised to become a genre-breaking success. A film this raw made with such a steady, assured hand only comes along once in a while. We should take notice.