Review: Visually Sharp and Compellingly Acted, The Novice Lacks a Fully Formed Narrative

First time writer/director Lauren Hadaway’s background in film work is primarily in the sound department, having worked as a dialogue editor on films like Ava Duvernay’s Selma and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and as sound editor on 2014’s Oscar-winning Whiplash. One of that film’s Oscars is actually for sound mixing, which makes sense for such a pulsing, percussive film that relies on the emotional impact of sound for much of its tension. Hadaway brings that expertise to her feature film debut, The Novice, a film about a collegiate athlete who pushes herself to physical and psychological limits (and beyond) to prove to herself that she’s in control. From intense training sessions on manual rowing machines to early-morning practices on the water, Hadaway takes viewers directly into protagonist Alex’s brutal regime through a sound mix that propels the film forward. Unfortunately, where Damien Chazelle’s film had a particularly strong script and remarkable performances (JK Simmons won an Oscar for his supporting role), The Novice is more lacking in these fundamental areas, and no amount of exceptional sound design or editing can make up for it.

The Novice
Image courtesy of IFC Films

Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a new college student who needs an angle to maintain her spot at school; when she discovers that the university’s rowing team offers scholarships for varsity players, she becomes obsessed with earning one of the coveted spots. The team practices in a basement space, all low ceilings and thick concrete walls, driving home just what an afterthought the sport is on campus. But to Alex, it’s life. Everything she does ties back to her commitment to rowing, to an unhealthy degree. At first, she’s a sponge, soaking up everything new she’s learning about the sport and how best to train for it; she takes every piece of input as more data she can use to control her progress and, in her mind, her chances to get onto the varsity team. Fuhrman is a committed actor, and she delves into Alex’s neuroses with abandon, spiraling into someone who completely loses her own grasp on what’s important.

As Alex becomes more and more obsessed with her efforts to reach the varsity team, it costs her more than just her own well-being. Soon, even her teammates and coaches are put off by her single-mindedness; the film’s most compelling clash comes when one of her closest friends on the team finally confronts her in one of the training facility’s dark, dank hallways. But it comes a little too late, and it’s too little to make up for the first two acts of the film where Alex’s issues go essentially unremarked upon by anyone who crosses her path. Watching someone deteriorate mentally for so long is exhausting, but it’s endurable if the payoff makes it worth all that trauma. In The Novice, there’s seemingly no interest in exploring Alex’s inner demons or motivations, what drives her to such extremes. And no one in her life ever interjects in order to challenge what’s become her unhealthy new normal. That’s not to say that a film investigating mental health and psychological trauma must include a wholesome resolution; those circumstances don’t often have such happy endings.

As is, Hadaway’s narrative falls just short of fully flushed out. While visually interesting compositions (scenes on the rowing machine turn into something like artistic ads for gym rats) and punchy, intense sound design go far here to get an audience inside Alex’s twisted brain, it’s not quite enough to make The Novice a fully formed, engrossing character study.

The Novice is now in select theaters and available on demand.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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