College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) joins her university’s rowing team and sets her sights on climbing up to the top varsity boat. Determined to out-perform her teammates and pushing herself beyond her personal limits, Alex spirals into an obsessive quest to be the best, which takes a toll on her mental health. Focusing only on her goal, Alex allows the rest of her life to slip into freefall while her obsession continues to grow in worrying ways.
‘The Novice’ is written and directed by first-time director Lauren Hadaway, and is based on Hadaway’s own experiences of being a competitive collegiate rower. A study of obsession and the dangers that come with it, ‘The Novice’ plunges viewers into the middle of Alex’s world and gives you a ringside seat to a young woman whose life is spiralling rapidly out of control. Alex starts her rowing journey at the bottom but her competitiveness soon takes over and she’s prepared to do anything it takes to be better than everyone else. While the girls around her enjoy their lives outside of rowing, Alex allows herself to do nothing but concentrate on her goal, ignoring the toll it’s taking on her mental health.
As a study of a young woman battling with her mental health, ‘The Novice’ works. Alex piles the pressure on herself, always thinking she can do better without recognising how dangerous and damaging her behaviour is. Clearly in need of some psychiatric help, Alex turns to self-harm as her obsession to be the best consumes her entire being. Not even a fledgling relationship with assistant coach Dani (Dilone) can prevent her from becoming her own worst enemy.
Where ‘The Novice’ stumbles is that it doesn’t let the audience into Alex’s world at all. We never get to learn why she is so competitive or get any context of her upbringing. It’s simply just expected that you accept she’s obsessive and that’s the beginning and the end of the conversation. That’s a real disservice to the character because everyone has their reasons for being the way they are. The only pressure you can discern comes from Alex herself but that must stem from somewhere, and the film doesn’t dive nearly deeply enough into that.
What can’t be faulted is Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance. She’s utterly convincing as a young woman on the verge and at times it’s exhausting watching her as Alex. Spitting out her dialogue rapidly and always seemingly on the verge of breaking, Fuhrman captures what it’s like to be a woman buckling under pressure and she does a sterling job with the limited material she’s given.
‘The Novice’ could have been a deeply involving story of pressure on a blossoming sportswoman but it never digs deep enough. It hits all of the obsession beats just fine but the narrative feels flat and under-developed. In order to be able to sympathise with a character such as Alex, the audience needs context otherwise it feels disconnected. I felt like an uncomfortable observer in a woman’s spiral rather than engaged with the journey of a young women trying to live up to society’s ridiculous expectations.
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond Director: Lauren Hadaway Writer: Lauren Hadaway Certificate: 15 Duration: 97 mins Released by: IFC Films Release date: 1st April 2022