The Novice – BFI Flare Film Festival 2022 – Film Review
Being disparagingly referenced as ‘the novice’ is a situation that is bound to irritate most people whilst trying to prove their value as a young adult. Such term may feel even more significant when you are Alex Dall, whose mission is to be the best by working as hard as possible, literally. Alex takes this philosophy to the extreme when enrolling in a college rowing team and is determined to challenge herself physically by putting her body through extremely punishing training routines. Alex seems to know no limits and therefore The Novice is a taut, tense tale of obsession in that pursuit for success.
The Novice keeps its viewers on the edge, similar to Alex, as the camera images are sometimes disorientated and shift in and out of focus mirroring Alex’s frenzied activity. Alex is constantly seen running, pushing herself to all limits until physical exhaustion becomes the norm to satisfy her inner competitive spirit. Her terse scribblings in her notebook, demonstrate the rituals that she undertakes as she attempts to calculate even higher personal bests. The accompanying score also accentuates this anxiety and tension in this immersive way.
Despite this complex inner psyche of its protagonist, The Novice is a simple tale of naked ambition which hurtles along at breath taking speed and director Lauren Hadaway takes the audience along for the journey on this observation of Alex’s unravelling and her compulsions. Hadaway was no stranger to the rowing world having been a member of a rowing team whilst at college. Her first hand experience is obvious in the way the team members’ activities are reduced to the components of ‘legs, bodies, arms’ in a mantra oft repeated by Alex to convince herself to continue beyond physical exertion. It is an exercise in obsession that is reminiscent of Whiplash and will delight fans of that film and Black Swan. The question is always whether it is necessary to suffer to achieve perfection for a craft, as the women are reminded by the coaches to listen to their bodies, and this is a sentiment reverberating within The Novice in an extremely visceral standout performance by Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex.
As Alex’s vision is quite narrow, in not permitting anything on the periphery to distract her from her goals, so too is there a narrow focus within the film’s editing. The deliberate effect from Hadaway is such that Alex’s motivations are never clear beyond her unending obsession, against which relationships with individuals within her life seem disposable and secondary. Unfortunately, this narrow focus results in Alex seeming very one dimensional without added depth or perspective. The film does not provide any reasoning for her obsession other than her competitive streak and therefore often feels lacking as a character study. Alex’s frustrations are seen emphatically but devoid of explanation there may be a reluctance for viewers to sympathise with her plight and indeed Alex appears as an unlikeable character.
However, the juxtaposition between this inner turmoil of Alex and the calm nature of the seas is a marvel to behold and is amplified by the sound effects and the impressively stunning cinematography. The birds’ eye view shots of synchronisation of the rowers presents a sense of calm despite the competitive ferocious within the boats. Close up shots of the rowers provide that immersive at water experience through focus on the oars and the physical strength exerted by the rowers to enable the boat to glide smoothly across the water. The power of nature is therefore felt within those scenes as well as the constant reminders by the coaches of the dangers of lightning and other perilous matters which can ordinarily impact the races.
The Novice is a no holds barred exploration of obsession within sports and college studies to the point of losing the sense of humanity of an individual. The film’s reluctance to dilute the severe impact of physical exertion is to be applauded in these times where burnout seems to be worn as a badge of honour. Whilst Hadaway’s vision is not judgemental regarding Alex’s highly strung decisions to fulfil her ambitions, The Novice with its negative tone, portrays a societal shift towards individuals that pursue their goals at all costs. Gone are the days of messages encouraging obsession such as ‘Greed is good’ and ‘lunch is for wimps’. This may be the film’s ultimate message or perhaps The Novice does not fully carry a message but adopts the role of a cautionary tale. Hadaway’s intention is not entirely clear in this aspect and as such the film is simply compellingly tense viewing from start to finish.
The Novice is one of those films that, even after a third viewing, reveals more cinematographic delights. Whilst the characters may not be likeable, its bold ambition as a feature directorial debut signals a welcomed new chapter within female led thriller horrors, such as Shiva Baby, depicting the horror of the everyday. It is an impressive directorial debut for Hadaway with such immense talent and vision on display.