The Novice Feature Photo

An obsessive novice rower (Isabelle Fuhrman) climbs the ranks of her cutthroat university's team, pushing herself to physical and mental extremes in her quest to become the best.

You can probably recall films like Whiplash and Black Swan, where young and ambitious characters endure brutal, sustained campaigns of psychological and physical abuse. There’s an outside force putting the protagonist’s mind on the ropes in those films. It’s a narrative approach that envelops the audience in a space that highlights how often we can bleed for our art and goals. 

Lauren Hadaway’s incredibly intense and immersive directorial debut, The Novice, swims in a similar pond. However, as the filmmaker shared with us in a recent interview (watch below), she wanted to do her version of the "obsessed artist trope."

“Usually when we see these types of films, there’s some external force happening, or they’re working for some external goal, such as winning the big race or going to the Olympics. Then, there’s the instructor or the coach — and I’ve never related to that. It’s always been this internal thing,” Hadaway said.

The Novice 100 percent is all about navigating the tricky waters within the cerebral walls. Isabella Fuhrman (Orphan, Masters of Sex series), who portrays central rowing collegiate Alex Dall (and also part of our conversation), added that Alex is “the hero and villain in her own story.” This action keeps the viewer focused and completely part of Alex’s complex world. There are times when you feel like you’re sweating and exhausted just as much as her. You absorb her pains, stresses and worries. And while there are coach characters, they’re not providing the mental squeeze as much. In fact, they want Alex to relax more. But that’s not who Alex is, and that drive makes you want to reach through the screen to hug her and say, “Whoa. Hey, it’s OK.”

Alongside Fuhrman’s commanding and impressive performance is the stylistic accoutrement that Hadaway incorporates. The fluid camerawork, sonic warps and dives, and overall editing keep the viewer leaning in. One sequence toward the middle (as referenced in the interview) slows down the camera speed to a level that feels dreamlike or nightmarish. There’s a smoky haze, darkness and constant feeling of the screw getting tighter and tighter (as the camera’s focus on movement). It’s truly a perfect assembly of storytelling components rowing in unison.

As hellish as the journey may seem to watch Alex put herself through the wringer, it all amounts to something with value and lasting power. There’s so much to discover along the way. So, take the plunge!

Q&A

The Denton Record-Chronicle recently sat down with writer-director Lauren Hadaway and star Isabelle Fuhrman to discuss the IFC Films release The Novice. In the 20-minute interview, we chat about maintaining positivity amid chaos and knowing when to go with the flow or analyze your actions (as it pertains to performing and directing). 

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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