The Novice


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is a stunning first feature."

Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is studying physics. It’s far from her best academic subject. To some people, this seems ridiculous – she’d be far more likely to succeed if she studied something else. But as JFK once said, sometimes we do things not because they are easy but because they are hard.

Dall (as she is known by almost everyone, the name being pronounced like ‘doll’, as if she were an automaton) has also taken up rowing. She’s not a natural at the sport. She has a smaller, lighter build than her most successful teammates, and she’s not a very good team player. But what she does have is determination, and she will put in all the effort, all the hours it takes to compensate for those disadvantages. She wants to be the best, no matter what it takes. In most mainstream films, this would be celebrated with soaring melodies, golden lighting and a triumphant ending in which, at the very least, she would learn to believe in herself. This is not that kind of movie.

Copy picture

Legs. Body. Arms. Arms. Body. Legs. These are the words that run through Dall’s head over and over again, whether she’s training on the machines, gliding across the water or lying in her bed. She’s determined to keep up with her studies. She even makes a brief attempt to engage with college social life, taking home a naively obnoxious boy for a disappointing one night stand, so that she can get that out of the way. She later embarks on an ethically dubious affair with a teaching assistant (Dilone), but ultimately, nothing is more important than the rowing. When she falls short, she is furious with herself. Her body bears the scars to prove it. When people tell her that she shouldn’t be working so hard, she simply dismisses it or cuts them out of her life.

If you’ve ever trained, ever pushed your body really hard, you’ll know how good endorphins feel – but there is more than physical addiction at play here. In the hollows of Dall’s face, director Lauren Hadaway finds an aching emptiness. The training room is dark, almost subterranean in appearance, suffused with slightly greenish light as if it were some watery purgatory. Dall cocoons herself here, hiding away in the shadows, working out long after everyone else has gone. She loses herself in the rhythm, working out until she throws up. She is obsessed with numbers, constantly making calculations and setting targets as if it might be possible to break the system by way of enhanced understanding. Her trainer reminds us of the danger of falling into cold water when out alone, or getting hit by an oar. The college team mascot is a raven, and sometimes, around the edges of the frame, we see ravens flutter, those icons of the Gothic, those harbingers of doom.

With a riveting performance from Fuhrman, who put on ten pounds of muscle for the role, The Novice is a compelling and perhaps frightening portrait of obsession. Dall is determined to be all that she can be, but it’s clear to anyone who pays attention for a moment that she is in danger of destroying herself. Powerful though it has become, her physical frame seems unable to contain the force of her will. In a capitalist society which urges us all to be strivers, Dall might be seen as the ultimate success, but she is not a winner; she keeps on falling short, ensuring that she is trapped in this desperate cycle. Hadaway, who rowed herself and knows the rhythms of the sport intimately, keeps us close to her where we cannot escape the pressure, where we struggle for air.

This is a stunning first feature. As muscles tense and uncurl, as oars slice into dark, fierce water, Hadaway makes us see and feel everything. Gina Keller’s sound design is immersive, violent, sometimes overwhelming. Alex Weston’s score builds upon the brutal logic of Dall’s obsession to compelling effect. Even when Dall is not working out, there is a constant sense of motion. She is hurtling towards something terrible, and we are being dragged in her wake.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2021
Share this with others on...
The Novice packshot
A queer college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost.

Director: Lauren Hadaway

Writer: Lauren Hadaway

Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone Kate Drummond, Jonathan Cherry, Charlotte Ubben

Year: 2021

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US

Search database:

Related Articles:

All or nothing

If you like this, try: