The Novice

Isabelle Fuhrman is fantastic as a freshman rower with an obsession to be the best in this gripping, gut-punching sports drama

Film Review by Rory Doherty | 11 Mar 2022
  • The Novice
Film title: The Novice
Director: Lauren Hadaway
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross
Release date: 1 Apr

Elitism in rowing goes further than its entrenchment in Oxbridge and Ivy League universities – in the world of this punishing endurance sport, it’s easy for struggling rowers to convince themselves that their competitors’ bodies are simply better than theirs. For novice Alex (a powerful Isabelle Fuhrman), a freshman at an excessively brutalist mid-tier college, the solution to such performance anxieties is to push herself past all reasonable breaking points. After joining her school’s all-female rowing team, she never sees her fellow oarswomen as anything but obstacles to be vaulted over in her obsessive, relentless pursuit of being the best.

Why? Debut writer-director Lauren Hadaway doesn’t sit the audience down to explain the origins of Alex’s fixations. Her actions, feverish and manic, explain her interiority, aided by a taut and operatic filmmaking style that pulls us along Alex’s descent into psychosis and self-destruction. The cuts are sharp and the sound is impactful (Hadaway was a sound editor on several Zack Snyder films) – all landing like gut punches as we powerlessly witness Alex punishing her body.

The Novice isn’t just a film about obsession. It’s about abuse, of the self-inflicted variety, and how competitive ideologies can be damaging for young people who don’t have a healthy understanding of their self-worth. Audiences alien to the technical lexicon and toxic atmosphere of the sport may struggle to feel the stakes of Alex’s climb to the top. Yet it becomes clear the goal is not for Alex to row the best, but to avoid destroying herself in the process.

The Novice was the Surprise Film at Glasgow Film Festival 2022 and is released in the UK 1 Apr by Vertigo