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Film Review: “The Novice” Is a Vigorous Character Study Overflowing with Energy

Written by: Hannah Tran | December 16th, 2021

Film poster: “The Novice”

The Novice (Lauren Hadaway, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

In a quaint but gloomy college town, freshman Alex Dall decides to join her new school’s novice-rowing team. While the other girls each express interest in the sport, making friends, and the potential scholarships that joining the team could offer, Alex doesn’t care about any of these things. In this electric debut from writer/director Lauren Hadaway, Alex’s exhaustive mission to make it to the best varsity boat is less sports drama than, as others have pointed out, something akin to Damien Chazelle’s cutthroat 2014 film, Whiplash (on which Hadaway worked as a sound editor). And despite its more amateur moments, The Novice is a memorably chilling foray into a form of self-effacing obsession that aptly distinguishes itself with its widely relatable characters.

The exciting pace and brazen attitude that the film expertly sets shines due to the simple story and steady hand that created it. Hadaway, who herself competed as a rower for a number of years, has an impressive handle on the nature of the sport and how to give it justice on screen. The inventive choices she makes are captured with stunning beauty and a perfectly fitting score. Although it contains a fairly straightforward and familiar plot, The Novice experiments with fresh ideas that truly get into the mind of the lead character.

Isabelle Fuhrman in THE NOVICE ©IFC Films

And this character is brought to life with the out-of-this-world talent of star Isabelle Fuhrman (Tape). Her anger and fatigue seep through the screen. Although some of the surrounding characters feel hollow, Fuhrman makes Alex all her own. Without undermining the pain and heartbreak that Alex endures, Fuhrman is unafraid to highlight their typically unlikeable persona and undeniable faults.

It’s unfortunate that some parts of the writing lack this complexity. Despite Hadaway’s thrilling style, some of the most emotional moments of this story feel listlessly atmospheric. It’s at its best when it prioritizes substance over style, but there are a notable few times where the story feels needlessly sidelined by emotion. This culminates in a somewhat disappointing conclusion that feels slightly too quick and too easy to be understandable. Nevertheless, its nonstop vigor makes for an appropriately arduous viewing experience. And with the consuming performance of Fuhrman and the fresh directorial perspective of Hadaway, The Novice is a masterful meditation on the horrors of perfectionism.

l-r: Amy Forsyth and Isabelle Fuhrman in THE NOVICE ©IFC Films
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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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