The Novice is to rowing what Whiplash is to drumming, a comparison that’s especially apt given that first-time writer-director Lauren Hadaway worked as a sound editor on Damien Chazel’s film. Instead of following a young drummer vying to be the greatest of all time, this film follows Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a college freshman striving to be the best at everything she does, simply to prove to herself and others that she can. One of these things is rowing, and when she gets a chance to compete in her university’s varsity team, her obsessive competitiveness pushes her to physical and psychological breaking points. Hardaway puts everything on the line in a gripping feature that’s handled with skill and a haunting sense of beauty that will ensure Alex’s ordeal sticks with viewers for a long time to come.
A major factor of what makes The Novice work is its star: Fuhrman is sensational in the leading role, her raw performance acting as the anchoring point in the anxiety-inducing plot as Alex’s life spins out of control around her. The actor puts just as much energy into her efforts as her character does with rowing, which makes for many sequences that are as uncomfortable and painful to watch as Andrew practising double-time swing until his hands bleed. However, Haraway also injects a strange beauty into the chaos and self-destruction that makes her debut feature the more compelling.
From the outset, it’s evident that Alex is on a collision course for disaster (“catching a crab”, to use rowing terminology). Haraway mounts up the tension in a precise and calculated manner that’s impossible to look away from, all while toying with viewers’ expectations. It’s unclear exactly what Alex’s journey is building up to, but the filmmaker makes audiences dread the thought of whatever it may be when it eventually comes.
It’s not all smooth sailing, however. Unlike the steady rhythm of the rowers, the script can’t keep its pacing up throughout. There are moments where the tautness slackens for a few beats before tightening up again.
One final similarity The Novice shares with Whiplash is that this film also marks the start of a career of a promising new voice in cinema.
The Novice is released in select cinemas on 1st April 2022.
Watch the trailer for The Novice here: