Director Lauren Hadaway has knocked her debut film out of the park with The Novice (2021). In the film, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) joins her college rowing team as a novice, and her competitive side pushes her to climb the ranks. Themes of perfection, status, and sacrifice – among a few others – permeate this expertly shot story, reminding one of great directors like Damian Chazelle, Darren Aronofsky, and David Fincher.
I was instantly pulled into this film. However, I knew I was watching something special during the first stylized rowing sequence. A spotlight shines on Dall as she becomes the only one in the room, and is completely lost in the erg machine she is on. It’s a great scene that adds to the visual style, as well as the character’s complex relationship with the pursuit of perfection.
Fuhrman gives a terrific performance throughout the film. There is a toughness about her, with an underlying vulnerability that really sells Dall’s complexities. It is clear early on that there is something dark beneath the surface, and as the film hints at it, Fuhrman is able to give just a little more insight into just what lies in wait.
Dall’s relationship with her teacher’s assistant Dani (Dilone) is another highlight of the film. It starts rocky, as Dall takes the entire allotted time for EVERY test she has in the class that Dani is covering, checking and double-checking each and every answer. Dani is understandably annoyed, as she and Dall sit alone in the giant hall. Yet, there is a flirtation between the two that develops organically throughout the film in fun ways.
The Novice is not a feel-good underdog sports movie, but it is an impressive first outing for Hadaway. If you enjoyed Whiplash or Black Swan, then you will likely find a similar enjoyment with this film…though I do feel the ending left me uncertain of what message I was to take away from this specific story. The exploration of familiars themes from a new voice was welcomed, and I look forward to seeing what else Hadaway has in store for the cinematic world. The Novice earns the Must See rating.