Review by David Baldwin
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a queer college freshman looking to make a name for herself. She overdoes it on her studies — frequently writing tests twice or three times in the time it takes everyone to do it once — and is obsessed with being the top of the pack. She joins the university’s rowing team in order to prove how much better she is than the rest of her teammates, and begins to push herself to physical and mental extremes in order to succeed. And she does not care who gets in her way of doing it.
In her debut feature, Writer/Director Lauren Hadaway has created a singular and hypnotic vision of the lengths one young woman takes to succeed. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and was just nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Hadaway. I watched the film a few weeks ago on a whim, and found myself unable to look away from the intensely wild ride Hadaway has created. While it would be incredibly easy to compare it to Damien Chazelle’s unforgettable Oscar-winner Whiplash (and believe me when I say people have already started to), The Novice feel like it is so much more than that.
For one, the character of Alex is much more distinctly layered than Miles Teller’s character Andrew in Whiplash. She is psychologically damaged and willing to push herself to the brink. She has some romance in her life and a friendship with fellow freshman Jamie (Amy Forsyth), but she barely has any time for it. She just wants to keep pushing harder, and harder, and harder. We get to see and feel the visceral anguish Alex puts herself through, and the gruesome pain she inflicts on herself whenever she fails. Settling for anything less than the best is not an option for Alex, and it makes for an incredible performance by Fuhrman. I first noticed her in the unsettling horror film Orphan, whose third act twist is absolute insanity and deserves to be seen to be believed, and she brings that same chaotic, unbridled energy to her work here as Alex. She is singularly minded to a fault, and is absolutely riveting in this role. From the moment she steps out on screen, she commands and demands your attention. Looking away is not an option, even as the film twists and pivots in increasingly morbid ways.
Fuhrman’s performance is complimented by the kinetic, literal whiplash inducing editing by Hadaway and Nathan Nugent. The film around Fuhrman moves quickly, stopping in only the briefest of sections and never hovering on the same shot for long (beyond an overdone crab motif). Much like Alex herself, the edit just keeps on moving quicker and quicker. It was nauseating in some instances, and hypnotizing in others. The extreme camera movements and quick cuts here are a thing of beauty, as are the ways Hadaway uses music and sound to help with deepen the trauma that fuels the film. She gets across Alex’s intensity and drive in a way few movies can. It’s a hell of a debut feature project to come out with, and the few quibbles I have with The Novice (not enough done with the deeper themes, some indecipherable dialogue that would make Christopher Nolan proud) are completely overshadowed by the look and feel Hadaway brings to the film, and by Fuhrman’s incredible performance.
They are a match made in hell and I mean that in the best way. Skipping out on this one is unacceptable. Just make sure you avoid eating while watching — it may make you sick. But you may not even find the time to eat if you do not heed that warning. Rather, you will find yourself transfixed by the most unique and breathless film you will experience all year. It received those Spirit Award nominations for a reason, and I can only hope that will not be the last we hear about The Novice.
The Novice is playing in Select Theatres in Canada now.
It is playing in Select Theatres and available on Digital/VOD in the United States.