The Novice – Review

“An unnerving and sometimes startling experience, directed unflinchingly by Lauren Hadaway and acted uncompromisingly by Isabelle Fuhrman.”

by Ken Bakely

A propulsive psychological thriller, The Novice throws itself deeply into the tangled mind of its main character. It’s not about diagnosing, and it’s not about explaining: it’s a portrait of obsession, where the subject of that fixation is secondary to the encompassing desire to conquer. It’s an unnerving and sometimes startling experience, directed unflinchingly by Lauren Hadaway and acted uncompromisingly by Isabelle Furhman, who stars as Alex, a college freshman whose current obsession has become rowing. She joins the team, not because she has a passion for rowing, but because she has a passion for winning – or, perhaps not even that, but for seeing everything as a mountain she must scale, faster and more comprehensively than anyone else thought she would. (This is also why she is majoring in physics, despite having little inclination for the subject.) In rowing, the goals are clear for her – honor, respect, a place on the varsity team – and so she fixates on them, pulverizing her mental, physical, and emotional state in pursuit.

People around her quickly become concerned: her coaches (Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond), her friend (Jeni Ross), and Dani (Dilone), the teaching assistant who she eventually forms a relationship with. But it’s tentative, as is Alex’s relationship with everyone, particularly those who tell her that maybe she’s not going about something in the healthiest of ways. For its part, The Novice doesn’t spare us the effects of this – not merely the shock of the extremes to which she goes, but the deep isolation and dark alienation that follows. Todd Martin’s cinematography descends into murky, muddy shades of blue, gray, and black; Alex Weston’s score ominously drones on in the background, like a slow-rolling sense of nausea. After a point, it can be unrelenting, but paradoxically, it is not a slog to watch. Hadaway, as writer and director, is not telling a story without rhyme or reason – she’s assembling a broader thesis, not merely on the choices that her main character is making, but what she’s thinking and feeling. 

Though the movie thankfully steers clear of trying to give us forensically assembled answers for everything that’s happening – and what purpose would they serve here, anyway? – having such proximity to Alex’s psyche means that we feel her all-consuming drive. This is not an abstract snapshot; it takes recognizable feelings and motivations, and draws them out through increasingly horrific contexts. In playing this character, Furhman sees the myriad of challenges and contradictions of spirit that are present in Alex. She commits to the part with a stunning intensity of her own, delivering a performance that soars as the character cascades, peeling back new layers to the combination of internalized and externalized facets of Alex’s obsessions. In fact, if there is a flaw to The Novice, it’s that it almost seems to let down Fuhrman after a point. She’s ready to race down a path that the movie hasn’t carved out. The script moves with such insularity as it builds and builds that there’s seemingly nowhere for it to go after a point. 

But what is here is so confidently crafted that it’s hard not to otherwise feel like its tempestuous world has been fully, carefully realized. Hadaway – in an astonishing debut – explores obsession as a social value. We prize the notion of endless, one-track minded endurance. We say that winning isn’t what matters, but perhaps there isn’t enough emphasis on what does. What happens when you take away the value of growth for its own sake, even the semblance of any palpable result, and everything becomes a box to be checked as quickly and emphatically as possible? Hadaway has an answer.