Release Date – 1st April 2022, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 37 minutes, Director – Lauren Hadaway
College freshman Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) begins to compete with herself when her mental wellbeing and ambition clash as she tries to make it to the top of her college’s rowing club.
Much like central character Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) we’re thrown into the college rowing club head first. Running in slightly late to the first meeting it’s clear from the start that she’s a slight outsider in this world, although she clearly has the ambition to push herself to succeed within this environment, and an interest in the sport which this club may help to spark further. While initially the lack of information into Alex and her background removes something from the film, it’s hard to form a connection with both it and the central character meaning that the emotional impact of certain moments isn’t entirely felt, as it becomes clear that this is a film about her competing against herself it becomes easier to engage with.
Fuhrman does an excellent job of showing the conflicting and competing nature of her character’s physical and mental state. She’s determined to get ahead and succeed in this club, making it to the top boat for competitions, even while still in her first year of college, however this leads her to push herself further and further, sometimes to a damaging extent. Throw in the fact that she still needs to do well at school and prove herself there and she finds herself rapidly spiralling downwards. Everything around her begins to become a literal blur – everything around her is either unclear or in darkness as she’s the only thing in focus. It’s an effective technique used by feature debut writer-director Lauren Hadaway to show the intensity in just how much Alex is pushing herself to reach the perfect goal and vision she has set for herself.
While the rowing club is certainly the focus of the film and Alex’s frustrations it seems not quite enough to fill the just over 90 minute run-time of the film. Instead the film occasionally looks into other aspects of the central character’s life. A relationship with a young teacher/ TA (Dilone) sticks out a bit until it begins to link more to Alex’s mental state, mostly in the latter stages of the piece, otherwise feeling not completely slotted into the rest of the film. It feels more prominent when the film begins to show slightly more conventional notes within the arc that it shows for the protagonist. While not entirely distracting they once again stick out from the rest of the piece as you’ve begun to connect with it on a more emotional level instead of simply watching it fold out with little response.
Admittedly, the film does climb out of this portion, mostly in the second half as the intensity of Alex’s personal struggle begins to come to more prominence, and perhaps it’s down to Fuhrman’s performance. Brilliantly pushing some of the more conversational scenes within the drama. Again, as you realise this film is largely isolated within her journey within the rowing club and who she becomes because of it there’s an interesting, and occasionally intense (particularly during moments which focus on Alex’s increasing self-harm), piece of work here that engages you and certainly builds up a sense of worry, and at times fear. It’s the core of the film and that’s remembered throughout, even during the scenes and strands which take something of a slight tangent away from this line. Luckily with these not being the biggest focus of the piece, and plenty of time being given to the personal drive and push of the titular novice; desperately trying to move on from that label as soon as she hears it, there’s a mostly consistent build up of emotional engagement with both the film and the central character once you properly realise the central line it’s travelling down.
While it takes a bit to emotionally engage with The Novice once it gets going there’s an intense story of personal confliction and competition. It might have some patches which initially stand out from the rest of the film, but once they join the core arc it builds up to forming a solid drama led by an excellent Isabelle Fuhrman.