The Novice (BFI Flare Review): First or Last
A college freshman pursues her dream to reach the top varsity team at all costs in The Novice, a breathless and harrowing journey through physical and psychological self-torture.
Drumming, ballet dancing, ice skating, wrestling. All hobbies that take great skill to master and that, more importantly, can quite easily morph from being a light hobby into heavy obsession, as so many films have and still show us. In The Novice, Lauren Hadaway – here on directing, writing and co-editing duties – moves away from dry land to the dark, dangerous but oddly beautiful rivers of a student campus, focussing on a college freshman who joins her university rowing team. The Novice grabs you by the throat from minute one, releasing its grip only at a few carefully selected moments and taking you on an intense and brutal journey of fixation.
The film’s surreal atmosphere, which warps reality freely as Isabelle Fuhrman’s (Orphan, The Hunger Games) Alex Dall psychological state deteriorates, is present from the very beginning. An overhead shot creeps slowly down towards a solo rower, shrouded in complete darkness from all sides; the angular, harsh lines of the boat and oars work to intensify this unsettling opening. From here, the snappy editing and camerawork sets The Novice’s dynamism in motion. Dall – not Alex, as it is surnames only on the cutthroat rowing team – pushes herself to the limits in her Physics degree, and this determination at all costs is no different when she sets her sights on a scholarship through a place in the varsity rowing team. The camera is an extension of Dall: full of jerks and ticks, always on the move, constantly hectic and stressed. In short, The Novice is as amped up and stressed out as a film can be, and that is a testament to the terrific technical work that went into creating it.
As Dall hurtles through her narrow world, her connection with others unsurprisingly suffers. Her supposed best friend Jamie Brill is a wonderful adversary, consistently given a murky edge by Amy Forsyth (Beautiful Boy, CODA), and provides much of the dramatic tension of The Novice; one spectacular blowout near the end of the film between the two women is an incredibly cathartic moment. Dall’s relationship with her girlfriend Dani (here played by Dilone) is given little time to develop, but still provides an emotional backbone to proceedings, hinting at what life could be like if Dall was able to switch off. Jonathan Cherry’s (Goon) likeable and charming role as coach of the team is another superb addition to an impressive cast, but the star through it all is Fuhrman, whose facial and bodily contortions succinctly show Dall to be a woman on the edge of a breakdown, and that’s before you take into account her eyes that positively shriek with a painful intensity.
The Novice is an inventive piece of filmmaking, with everything working to mirror Dall’s mindset. On occasion it can be overbearing, with some odd imagery and cloying choices, but ultimately the pain that Dall feels is heavily reflected on screen. Aside from these issues and some overly stylised moments, The Novice is a success. Effective scenes that literally spotlight Dall as she rows contribute to this constricted atmosphere, and when she finds time to relax, which is to say not very often, the film itself breathes too. There are some beautiful shots of Dall at ease on a calm river, or dancing with Dani at a bar.
As The Novice thrusts towards its conclusion, it does well to strike a strong emotional chord amidst the chaos. Dall’s self-harm – hinted at early in the film through mysterious scars on her stomach – comes to light in full late on in a rightfully harrowing moment, and Dani’s despair and helplessness at her self-flagellation is tough to watch. The Novice never loses sight of Dall as a human being and paints a very genuine and troubling portrait of a young woman with a compulsion to push herself too far. In her directorial feature debut, Hadaway has crafted something not only compelling but moving, and as The Novice reaches its terrifically tantalising conclusion, the audience will feel as exhausted but perhaps as hopeful as Dall too.
The Novice was screened at the 2022 BFI Flare Film Festival on 21-23 March, 2022. The film is now available to watch on demand in the US, and will be released in cinemas in the UK on 1 April, 2022. Click here to read more reviews from the festival.