The antithesis of inspirational sports films
It’s clear from the very beginning of this film that college freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) feels the need to excel. She does everything she can to make sure she passes her exam as there is no room for failure for this dedicated but borderline obsessive student. Alex has the drive to be the best at everything she takes part in, a trait that affects many people, even though this is kind of ironic, as such a compulsion can be considered flawed and unhealthy.
After finishing her exam, Alex runs across campus to another building where a group of girls are trying out for the college rowing team. After her initial introduction to the sport, it’s not long before we realize Alex wants to be the best college rower on the squad, as we watch her push both her mind and body to improve her chances of being selected for the varsity team. She is relentless in the pursuit of excellence to the point where she becomes a sweaty mess in certain scenes of this film, in danger of reaching breaking point, both mentally and physically.
The Novice isn’t the only film in recent years to feature somebody who pushes themselves to the limits. Comparisons can be made to Black Swan and Whiplash which both focused on people who were consumed by their need to excel, and there are hundreds of sporting movies out there that centre on protagonists with the same need.
However, Alex is a little different to many of the movie characters we have seen rise to the top of their various professions. Unlike those who are driven by their passions in their chosen sports, dancing, or musical endeavours, we never get the sense that Alex particularly cares about rowing. She is somebody who has to excel in absolutely everything she does, for reasons that are psychological rather than for enjoyment or anything career-enhancing. It’s never made abundantly clear why Alex is the way she is and this is somewhat frustrating as the ambiguity surrounding her motives makes it hard to root for her.
As such, this is almost the antithesis of the many inspirational sports films that have encouraged us to be the best that we can be. It’s less an underdog story and more of a cautionary tale as Alex isn’t somebody who stands as an example to the rest of us. It’s clear that something isn’t right within her psyche and as such, most of us will probably be inspired to push ourselves less rather than push ourselves harder.
Technically speaking, The Novice is a fine film. Lauren Hadaway, who makes her feature-length debut here, is as adept at capturing every agonized expression on Alex’s face as she is at capturing the wider shots of her rowing. The camerawork is excellent, with scenes on the water that are sometimes beautiful to behold, despite the sight of our protagonist sweating and grimacing as she pushes her body beyond the thresholds of pain.
Fuhrman gives a tremendous performance as the troubled student, finally getting the role she deserves after years of starring in films that have failed to make much of an impact post-Orphan, the horror title that she was previously most well known for. She won Best Actress accolades at both the Tribeca Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards for The Novice, and deservedly so, as she doesn’t hit one false note (her character would approve) in this punishing drama.
Still, while I appreciated the film and the talents both behind of and in front of the camera, I wasn’t completely won over by it. I would have liked to have known more about Alex and her motivations as that may have made me warm to the character a little more. I would have liked a deeper story too, as other than the barebones plotline of Alex’s obsessive quest to reign supreme, there wasn’t a lot of room for narrative progression.
But despite these misgivings, I can still recommend the film, even if you have never rowed a boat or tried to excel at anything in your life. Fuhrman’s performance is great, the strenuous rowing scenes are a highlight, and the eclectic soundtrack adds to the film’s haunting atmosphere. With all of these things in place, you should still cross the finish line feeling fairly satisfied when it’s all over, even if you still have questions about Alex and the impulses that drove her.
Verdict - 7/10