14 June 2024

BFI Flare 2022 Film Review – The Novice (2021)

There’s only one thing on Alex’s mind and that’s winning. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing – sports, studies, anything – she has to come first, be the best. Whatever the price. And, in Lauren Hadaway’s feature debut, The Novice, that cost escalates.

She’s a straight A student yet, despite no interest or experience in rowing, she takes it into her head to join the college team. Her ambition doesn’t stop there: she’s after a place in the prestigious varsity boat. Most students see it a chance for a scholarship but her grades are so good she doesn’t need one. She simply wants to win at something else and, getting stuck into a rigorous routine of rowing machines and workouts, she’s determined to obliterate every obstacle in her way – physical, mental or human. It’s an all-consuming obsession.

If only Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) could explain that desire to be first past the post in anything and everything, but she can’t. Not to herself and certainly not to anybody else. Instead she relentlessly pushes herself, well beyond the point when others would just call a halt. The film reeks of sweat, the blood drips from her hands, particularly an injury on her hand which refuses to go away and has a touch of stigmata about it. She literally beats herself up if there’s the slightest inkling she might come second and, in Fuhrman’s fiery, intense performance, she burns with self-hatred. And if that all strikes a chord, then it should. The Novice isn’t quite Whiplash for rowers, but it comes close, and Hadaway was Sound Editor on Damien Chazelle’s Oscar winner. True, there’s no sadistic teacher, but with blinkered vision like Alex doesn’t really need one.

Hadaway shows enormous confidence in a stripped back, lean emotional thriller, one that packs a huge amount into tight 90 minute running time. Dialogue comes second when it comes to storytelling, losing out to physicality and some stunning cinematography, which conveys both the beauty and the agonies of the sport. What conversations there are tend to be relegated into the background, muffled and hard to distinguish, so that our focus remains on Alex and her thought processes. The tension builds to the extent that you can hardly bear to look at what she does next – but you’re almost as compelled as she is and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The film has a grip like one of the crabs that keep floating into her imagination. Sharp, tenacious and painful.

While we’ve seen the gritty side of sports in other movies, The Novice taps into something more contemporary. The mentality that puts winning above everything else so that even life itself comes in second. Under Hadaway’s direction, and with Fuhrman’s fierce performance, it paints a grim but riveting picture, one that could put you off sport for good.

★★★★


Drama | Cert: tbc | Vertigo Releasing | BFI Flare on 21 and 23 March. UK cinemas from 1 April 2022 | Dir. Lauren Hadaway | Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry.


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