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Tribeca 2021: “The Novice” is mercilessly compelling

The Novice

Isabelle Furhman’s relentless lead performance as an obsessive aspiring athlete propels the Tribeca rowing drama forward.

“Rhythm is everything,” a crew coach tells Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) at one point during The Novice, which won awards for best U.S. narrative feature, actress, and cinematography at the Tribeca Festival this week. The coach could well be explaining how this movie, about a college student with an obsessive drive to be the best at varsity rowing, differentiates itself from Black Swan (the movie about a young woman with an obsessive drive to be the best at ballet) or Whiplash (the movie about a young man with an obsessive drive to be the best at jazz drumming) or The Social Network (the movie about a college student with an obsessive drive to be the best at something, even if it winds up destroying the world, in part because there’s no way that he can row crew)—all of which The Novice resembles in content, and sometimes form.

Writer-director Lauren Hadaway’s rhythm is her own, distinct from Darren Aronofsky’s, David Fincher’s, and Damien Chazelle’s, the triumvirate of dude directors who made those previous, excellent studies in obsession. Perhaps informed by her own college rowing experience, Hadaway keys into a relentless push-pull, especially as Alex drives herself further, further, and further still before picking herself up off the floor.

The Novice
The Novice (Tribeca)

Fuhrmann appears in just about every scene of The Novice. She conveys Alex’s intense drive from its start: she repeats information to herself as a mantra, she scribbles notes (and answers to physics tests that she takes and re-takes in a single study session, triple-checking her work), and lets the words of others play on a loop in her head, nourishing her doubts while Hadaway’s camera stays close. It’s almost a shock to hear her speak with a different rhythm, 10 or 15 minutes into the film—while getting dressed up to attend a frat party with her roommate, no less. But even when she’s partying, Alex is mission-driven – she admits later that her drunken hook-up was first and foremost about crossing that college experience off her list, an obligation to fulfill, one less thing to worry about.

The broad outlines of The Novice are familiar, but its details are its own. The picture emphasizes how much Alex is pushing herself.  She is not reacting to outside pressures; she is relentless by her own will. Her coaches are tough, but understanding; if they provide some tacit, accidental encouragement for her self-destructive behavior, it’s always with caveats and warnings. Alex’s frenemy Jamie (Amy Forsyth) doesn’t tease or dismiss her; they’re more friends than enemies, with Jamie’s nonchalance wielded not to provoke Alex’s relentless striving, but to hold her own against the upperclassmen who try to assert their seniority. Even Alex’s fraught romantic relationship with Dani (Dilone) avoids some of the usual dramatics.

The broad outlines of The Novice are familiar, but the details are its own.

Unlike Black Swan’s Nina, Alex ultimately isn’t completely at sea in her social interactions—indeed, sometimes her antisocial tendencies feel like calculated feints on behalf of a movie that may want to keep both madness and relatability close at hand. The Novice uses that relatability—that feeling of wanting to work the hardest at something, be the best at it, to be acknowledged as the best and hardest-working all at once—to keep the movie from spiraling hard into horror territory. (Beyond, of course, the baseline horror of rowing crew, which looks very, very hard.) The memorably dark endings of Black Swan and Whiplash build some suspense into this movie’s familiarity: Will the same twisted triumphs await Alex? The lack of obvious alternate options manages to increase the tension, even if never directly matches the white-knuckle thrills of its closest cinematic cousins.

The Novice
The Novice (Tribeca)

With its windowless-basement training areas and overcast-to-rainy scenes on the water that make nature look gunmetal grey, The Novice will play well both on a big screen and at home. After all, the thing about relentless perfectionism is that it does. Not. Let. Up. It hits you where you live. It’s a rhythm that refuses to be shaken off or shut out.It’s an immersive, intense, intimate picture with a driving lead performance.

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