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The Novice Review

The Novice Review

Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a collage freshman, joins the rowing team as a novice and becomes laser-focused on making her way to the top. The intensity of her obsession unsettles her team-mates, frustrates her girlfriend (Dilone) and worries her coaches (Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond), but none of that matters to Alex. All she cares about is becoming the best.

Debut director Lauren Hadaway had her start in Hollywood working in the sound department on movies like Whiplash, The Hateful Eight, and Justice League, and her sonic prowess is immediately apparent in The Novice. From the moment we meet Alex, we are completely immersed within her psyche. The film is scored in part by her crazed mutterings, and the heightened sound design illustrates the constant edginess of our heroine. Even the musical soundtrack – an eclectic mix of classical, country and indie rock songs – is recruited to add to the discomforting aural world.

That Hadaway’s kinetic handheld camera stays so close to Alex – and there are periodic shots from her point of view – adds further to our immersion. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but hugely evocative, although Hadaway’s reliance on symbolism can become overbearing at times. For the most part however, the novice director has an impressive handle on her movie’s many moving parts.

Anchoring the action with formidable power is Isabelle Fuhrman, who made a name for herself as the 12-year-old star of 2009 horror Orphan, but hasn’t had the career she’s worthy of in the decade and a bit since. Hopefully The Novice will lead to greater things for the former child actor – so much of the film relies upon her making her somewhat oblique protagonist a compelling figure, and despite there not being a wealth of depth to her character on a script level, that the movie remains engaging for as long as it does has a lot to do with Fuhrman’s committed performance.

Somewhere around the midpoint, however, it becomes apparent that The Novice just isn’t going anywhere. Hadaway is preoccupied with viscerally plunging us into the fevered mindset of our ferociously driven protagonist, and she manages for a significant while, but then the inherent thinness to the film’s conception begins to rear its head. Alex’s obsession stays at the same level from the opening until the penultimate scene; we never get to know her beyond that obsession, and the explanation as to why she is the way that she is doesn’t ever seem sufficient. The supporting characters – though well-acted –  are thinly drawn. The ending feels like an enormous anti-climax after the operatic drama of all that’s come before. Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what the movie is trying to say.

Although it’s hard to imagine how Hadaway could have made The Novice any more technically immersive, she never quite develops her ideas in a satisfying enough way to sustain a whole feature. Nevertheless, there are some promising directorial chops on display here; certainly enough to inspire excitement at what she might do next.

★★★

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