Isabelle Fuhrman in The Novice (2021)
Writer/director Lauren Hadaway’s feature debut The Novice builds stamina from a powerhouse performance at the center. Isabelle Fuhrman plays Alex Dall, a college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team with the goal to make varsity in her first year. Alex will do whatever it takes to rise. Her determination reaches obsessive degrees as she pours her body and mind into competitive rowing. Her surroundings blur out of focus to make the sport center stage, and Hadaway wastes no time immersing into action as the camera chases Alex down a darkened hallway to an already-started rowing class. The words of Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) echo in her mind like study notes before a test: “legs, bodies, arms, arms, bodies, legs.” It’s clear from the start that Alex is ready to jump into the deep end, and that Lauren Hadaway has arrived as a filmmaker to watch. The Novice takes a remarkable ride on an obsessive psychological journey.
Hadaway crafts an intense character study and takes the plunge into experimental filmmaking to tell it. To feel Alex’s heart race, and to go on the journey with her like a fly on the wall, The Novice lets her emotions take control of the camera. From frantic classroom note-taking to early bird practices, the film moves to the rhythm of her drive. The imagery borrows from the characters’ lines to make words pop. The tense score boosts every heart-racing moment. The sound design is spectacular, turning a rowing practice into a dance of drive. The direction is sharp and sensory. Not a second goes to waste, which adds to the pulsating quality of the story. Alex doesn’t take a moment to rest, and neither does Hadaway. The camera movement is so laser focused on the protagonist, grabbing buzz words from background noise in the way that Alex picks up on them. She’s a note-taker, she’s a student, always striving for the right answers. While focused on the world of competitive rowing, the film does not neglect to show how Alex slips away from so many other facets of her world. One of which is a budding relationship with her class TA Dani (Dilone), and how the emotion of their love mirrors that of how rowing makes her feel. As a viewer, it feels like Hadaway dropped a camera on this character smack in the middle of navigating life. In this case, rowing is life.
By not knowing what exactly it is that’s driving Alex, the film constantly paddles from one unexpected gear to the next. It’s always a mystery what lies in store for her next, what motivates her to constantly feel the need to prove herself and be the best from the rest. While it’s clear rowing is Alex’s obsession, Hadaway’s screenplay is smart not to make this film a rowing film. It’s a character study, a multi-faceted look at how obsessive determination takes a toll on relationships; not just Alex’s relationship to her teammates and her girlfriend, but also to herself. The Novice is an experiment in pressing pause on self-care. It’s made clear from the start that while surrounded by many, Alex is the sole passenger. The film opens with a lone rowing boat in darkness; this is where Alex lives, and the film lives in her headspace. Alex leaves herself so far behind in a race to make varsity, a gentle expression of concern is enough to spark a staggering monologue (played brilliantly by Isabelle Fuhrman) that takes a peek into her need to be first. As she shouts “If everyone sat on their asses and did nothing, all of this would cease to exist,” it’s clear in this moment, the viewer doesn’t know very much about Alex Dall. But Fuhrman does, and her mystique as an actor is what makes her performance so constantly intriguing.
Fuhrman’s performance commands the screen down a feverish rabbit hole of tears, tension, charisma, and unwavering drive. Every moment of frustration, glee, disappointment, she runs the gamut and gives what is easily one of the best performances of the year. Fuhrman is in every scene, further cementing the staying power of the film. She channels obsession and hard work to carry an absorbing character study on her shoulders. Alex’s hunger to win is startling to watch, especially when the source of her determination is unknown. The unknowable is also a refreshing perspective to take. Hadaway does not need an explanation for the character’s desire, and Fuhrman compliments the sentiment perfectly with a performance that lives and breathes in the moment. Surrounding her is a great ensemble of actors including Amy Forsyth as friend/teammate Jamie Brill, who soon becomes competition. The film goes in a smart direction in exploring how Jamie and Alex naturally gravitate towards each other. They find a bond in that making varsity is a necessity, but it’s a necessity to them in completely different ways. A testament to the strength of imagery, Jamie is often surrounded by team players while Alex is totally in her head, in solitude, which makes the implosion of their relationship riveting.
The Novice moves at lightning speed and never fails to lose its grip. It’s a fully realized story reverberating with the confidence and passionate drive of its protagonist. The flow is masterful, each scene fueling from the previous to maintain energy. The story always feels electric and fresh, not offering a clear picture of what direction it’s going in. Isabelle Fuhrman is a force of nature, her commitment to Alex Dall a burst of energy, and a perfect source of stamina for Lauren Hadaway to work alongside. Together their collaboration makes The Novice not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the most memorable feature debuts in recent memory.
The Novice arrives December 17 on VOD.