The Novice rows into cinemas nationwide on April 1st.
Amid loud and overly brash fraternity culture, The Novice sets its scene for a sporting take on the psychological thriller. Heavy with inspiration from the likes of Black Swan, its visual nuance and intricate sound design builds an intimate picture of the pressures of competitive sport. However, despite the seemingly endless amount of drama, the film fails to raise the dramatic stakes in its 94-minute runtime.
College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) has always liked a challenge—majoring in her weakest subject in her first university term. After joining the rowing club, she gets hooked on pushing through pressure and the value placed on being the best. In danger of alienating herself and teetering on a breakdown, Alex struggles to navigate the overwhelming mental toll of competitive sport.
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At first glance, the subject matter of The Novice is rather mundane—living out your college years cinematically lends itself to whimsical coming-of-age stories or a past someone would rather forget. Director Lauren Hadaway quickly proves this claim to be false, catching a rhythm of rowing that’s intoxicating. There’s an overwhelming darkness to its visuals, using shadows to hide the foreshadowing toil from full view. Meanwhile, its use of layered sound adds to the distortion of the mind, trying to capture the fleeting nature of supposed success that the self seems to recognise.
Not shy to beautify and romanticise self-inflicted pain, the spirit of competition in The Novice anchors its dramatic narrative. There is a harrowing subtext to a young woman throwing herself into something alien and gruelling at such a precarious age. Nail-biting in isolated moments, the can-do attitude and glints at hazing culture culminate in a sense of robotic animalism, extending to the lack of addressing teammates with their full names. Athletic pressure seems an odd drug to be hooked on in college, though the nature of self-worth stemming from continuously working is only too understandable to appease.
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While there’s a growing sense of entitlement as Alex gains confidence in addressing authority, her villain edit comes with a surprising by-product. Consciously or not, she uses queerness as a form of release—using it to escape her identity rather than figuring it out. It’s an interesting dynamic to see played out, working against the grain of the typical LGBTQ+ drama. Student-teacher Dani (Dilone) acts as a worthwhile antidote, injecting a sense of charm and seduction almost devoid of anywhere else in the plot.
Though its tension is always palpable, The Novice remains one-note. The scale of intensity and dramatic stakes do not change from its opening to closing minutes, continually operating at the level of wired that Alex consistently maintains. While this strategy is effective in theory, the overall outcome is a less than satisfying one. The continuing crab analogy (referring to the rowing term ‘catching a crab’) is painfully apparent, and the final emotive punch needed in its closing moments doesn’t convincingly land.
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Despite its structural misgivings, there are also many invaluable questions Hadaway attempts to answer. Alex’s childhood friend and roommate are viewed as burdening baggage, while her interactions with whoever she meets highlight the perils of being willing to go the extra mile. Constant voices consume the shaping of Alex’s world, while the brief instances on her own are singled out as picture-perfect snapshots. Nudity is used as a vehicle of truth, which tends toward religious iconography. Here the rowing wounds on Alex’s hands appear like stigmata, with her final physical breakthrough chained to her boat, like Jesus to the cross.
With intense, speedy cinematography and intelligent use of sound, The Novice is a sensory gift that keeps on giving. However, while the initial dramatic spectacle holds unique intrigue, it’s not enough to satisfy its feature-length runtime. Self-mutilation is a construct that needs a lot of gumption behind it, and while this is present, it fails to build on its own foundations.
With intense, speedy cinematography and intelligent use of sound, The Novice is a sensory gift that keeps on giving.