CAST: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Jeni Ross, Eve Kanyo, Nikki Duval, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
BASICALLY…: A college student (Fuhrman) pushes herself to extremes in order to make the varsity rowing team…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
We like to talk about the damage that toxic masculinity and toxic fandom does to our society, but what of toxic perfectionism? The concept of pushing oneself so hard to succeed that it ends up driving everyone else away is just as concerning as the other forms of toxicity, because the psychological ramifications that leave a dent on both the individual and their closest ones can be frightening when certain goals are all that they can think about, as can the disturbing level of self-inflicted violence when they don’t achieve them. It’s a concept that debut writer-director Lauren Hadaway explores deeply in The Novice, an electrifying and often uncomfortable psychological thriller that is to the sport of rowing what Whiplash was to drumming.
Isabelle Fuhrman stars as Alex Dall, a college freshman who we very quickly learn has a fierce competitive streak, always the last to leave during in-class exams to ensure she gets each and every answer correct. She has also signed up for the extra-curricular rowing team at the college, which she joins as a novice and begins training hard to climb higher and higher in the team’s ranks, all the way up to the all-important varsity spot. However, as Dall pushes her body and muscles to the absolute breaking point each and every time, her life around her begins to crumble, as her focus on making varsity and nothing else makes her a genuine threat to her other teammates, her friends, and ultimately herself.
It’s appropriate to refer to Whiplash as a clear influence and comparison for The Novice, since not only did Hadaway actually work on the film as a sound editor (she has also worked for the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Zack Snyder in similar departments), but her film shares strong parallels with Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winner over the concept of toxic perfectionism. Isabelle Fuhrman’s Dall, Hadaway’s equivalent to Miles Teller’s ambitious but psychologically tortured drummer, only lacks a fierce and cruel J.K. Simmons mentor figure to berate her from a distance because she also is the J.K. Simmons figure, constantly pushing herself to row and row until sweat pours out of her like a waterfall, and then resorting to self-harm when her efforts only produce mediocre results. Fuhrman, who delivers an impressively intense lead turn, makes you fear this character as she physically starts to become a mere shell of herself further into her overly ambitious practicing, with the actress clearly going to some deeply dark places just to get to where her character is supposed to be at all times.
Hadaway herself goes to extremes in order to highlight the severe psychological toll this whole journey is taking upon her lead character, such as fast-paced editing throughout which presents a close idea of the hard-wired, one-track mind of hers that’s chugging along at full speed, and nifty sound design which experiments with echoing voiceovers, distorting music tracks, and amplifying tinier sounds like scribbling pencils and the cool splashing of rivers. Often, the viewing experience can seem relentless in its sensory exercises, and there were times when I would get a bit lost as to what was happening in the story given its overwhelming visual and audible nature, but the filmmaker admirably sticks to her guns and presses on with a visceral style to match the dark and tormenting psychological storytelling. Like Whiplash, it almost feels like you’re watching a covert horror film, with the main terror coming not from jump scares or spooky ghosts (or even the fact that Fuhrman is best known for playing the creepy little girl in Orphan), but from the unstoppable journey that the lead character is putting herself through, and how it is turning someone who is shown to have some level of humanity and charm to her name, into a fierce and intimidating monster driven by nothing but wanting to be the absolute best in a sport which she isn’t even that heavily experienced in.
As intense as it is electrifying to watch, The Novice is one of the fiercer filmmaking debuts to come around in a while, positioning Hadaway as a writer and director to watch in the same way that Chazelle became so after Whiplash. If this means that Hadaway’s next film is a delightful old-school Hollywood musical, then I am all in on where she goes next in her career.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Novice is a gripping psychological study of toxic perfectionism, led by a impressively intense lead turn by Isabelle Fuhrman and an electrifying style by debut filmmaker Lauren Hadaway, although its relentless sensory style occasionally derails focus on the storytelling.