The Novice (2021)
The Novice could be deemed “the Whiplash for rowing,” and that is it in a nutshell but it also distinguishes itself separately from that Oscar-winning 2014 indie. Debut writer/director Lauren Hadaway was actually on the sound editing team behind Whiplash, and that’s her area of expertise with over 40 credits, and right away you can tell her attention to details as far as filmmaking being an immersive experience for the viewer. It’s been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Beat Feature, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the little indie that could right now, though it also seems like the kind of well-received indie that gets forgotten around award season. That would be a shame, because while not quite at the level of Whiplash, this is a hypnotic and visceral and disturbing portrait of competitive obsession.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman) is a freshman for her East Coast university. She joins the crew team with the goal of being the best. Her coaches encourage her competitive spirit but even they try and warn her to take it easier with her relentless training regiment. Nothing else matters to her.
You feel Hadaway’s background in sound design, how she uses it to disorient and produce a rhythm to her movie, the inhale and exhale of pushing one’s self to their physical limit. It’s accompanied by dizzying edits that feel completely matched by their auditory components (Hadaway also served as a co-editor). It’s frenetic and places you in the mindset of our protagonist, whose single desire is to be the best no matter what. That solitary focus blurs out the outside world, so when we get into trance-like states of close-ups, repetitive edits, and slow-motion extensions, we feel trapped inside her restless state of mind. One critic compared the training montages to the drug use montages from Requiem for a Dream, and this is completely accurate. Alex would never view herself as an addict but that’s precisely what she is. Her personal addiction is at winning, and winning at all costs and being the best.
In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s protagonist was a capable drummer that wanted to be excellent. He already had talent and was pushed to the brink by his monstrous teacher/drill sergeant/abusive father figure. Alex throws herself into unfamiliar situations. She is a physics major even though she doesn’t really like or understand the subject. She joins the rowing team even though she lacks any experience whatsoever. And yet, she still sets her sights on the near impossible. She doesn’t want to be the best freshman, and she doesn’t just want to join the varsity squad; she wants to break all the individual records as soon as possible for a team sport. A normal person would view these goals as unrealistic and potentially out of reach, but that’s the point for Alex. It’s the best or nothing, and her toxic win-at-all-costs mentality is even more toxic because she expects to win even in the most unlikely scenarios. It would be like never driving a car and expecting to win the Indy 500. That adds a different dynamic for Alex but it also makes her even more self-destructive and misanthropic.
The movie becomes a tale of obsession, a downward spiral much akin to an addiction narrative. Alex gradually cuts off all other parts of herself she deems to be a distraction. It’s only small moments where we try and catch a different definition of Alex, the version of her when she might allow herself to relax, but this feels like the “weak Alex” that she’s trying to snuff out, because there shall be no other version of Alex except the one in service to her goal. When she starts having a potential relationship with her T.A. (model Dilone), you think this might be the character’s off ramp, an opportunity for her to settle and realize something else that is meaningful, building an interpersonal relationship. It becomes another distraction to remove. This achieves the artistic vision of showing the mental and physical decline of Alex. Everything in the movie is likewise in service of serving Alex’s grueling goal. However, this also makes her a less dimensional character. If all we know about her is how obsessive she can become, then we’re left to pick up whatever other scraps we’re given to piece together a fuller understanding of her. Perhaps Hadaway doesn’t want any definition beyond Alex’s obsessions. It makes the character less complicated and by extension less compelling, but there is that rubbernecking quality of just watching to see how far she will go before reaching a breaking point. Maybe even death?
This movie would not work as mightily without the committed performance by Fuhrman (Orphan, The Hunger Games). She’s been working ever since she was a child but this is a breakthrough performance for the actress. The intensity of her performance is so conveyed that you might feel like you had a workout yourself. The actress gained ten pounds of muscle over the course of the punishing film experience and athletic training. I had to imagine the movie was shot linearly so they could trace her physical transformation, but I haven’t confirmed it.
Another sound area that greatly elevates the movie is the stirring score by Alex Weston (The Farewell). This is my favorite film score of 2021. It is haunting, moody, and appropriately frantic, with jangling strings and a propulsion that echoes its main character. It has an easy presence of sliding in and out, mimicking the pace of the compulsive training, and standout tracks include the motif “Training” and “Legs Body Arms” and “Seat Race.” Listen to it, folks. Weston has put together greatness and deserves far more recognition than he is being given.
The Novice could do worse than patterning itself after Whiplash, one of the best films of the last decade. What it lacks in originality and characterization it makes up for in execution, immersing the viewer in the insane obsessions of its lead character. Film has always been an empathetic medium and sometimes it’s a trip into the dark side of the human psyche. Why is Alex this way? It’s unknown. Will she ever break free from this toxic mentality? It’s unknown. Even the ending leaves you with enough ambiguity to wonder what Alex will do now. Is she fulfilled, has she had some important introspective breakthrough, or will she never be satisfied, always finding a new mountain to climb even as her body gets painted in bruises and scars? The Novice is an impressive film debut for Hadaway. It’s not the most in-depth movie from a substance standpoint, but the packaging, presentation, and style give it something extra special.
Nate’s Grade: B+