Great athletes have to be obsessive and push themselves past their physical limits but they also must stay grounded and mindful of injury. Finding the balance between these two states is the tension that many athletes struggle with, especially early in their careers. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, The Novice is a portrait of an athlete whose competitive nature gets the better of her. As an emotional thriller, The Novice didn’t really work for me, but as a sports movie, it’s distinctive for the way it takes the shine off of winning. In her debut feature, Lauren Hadaway explores the dark side of athletic training, and the way it can easily tip over into self-laceration.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a freshman at Wellington College, a fictional college we are meant to understand is a prestigious, private school. As Alex’s roommate points out, early in the film, “everyone here was the the top of their high school class.” Much of the dialogue in The Novice is expository in this way, and in general, the directorial choices relating to camera placement, blocking, and editing are more interesting and emotionally direct than the screenplay, which often falters when it comes to dialogue. Perhaps this reflects the athletic experience itself: there isn’t as much to say about it, because the doing is the thing. Alex Dall is a doer, above all, the kind of person who is always in motion. From the first scene, she is racing from an exam to an introductory meeting for women interested in joining the novice crew team. After a few grueling practices in which she learns the fundamentals of the sport, Alex sets her sites on the ultimate prize: to join varsity team as a novice rower.
Unfortunately for Alex, her main competition and workout buddy, Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth), is a natural athlete who has already been singled out by the coach as someone with the potential to join varsity. Jamie’s physical gifts are paired with a mellow temperament, superficial demeanor, and good political instincts. She’s the kind of person who always goes to bed early, shrugs off bad days, and can get along with people she doesn’t like very much. Jamie also has a strong motivation to make the varsity team: if she wins a spot, she will also win a full-ride scholarship, which she desperately needs. She’s the perfect nemesis for Alex, whose perfectionism is a threat to her well-being, and whose interest in rowing crew is somewhat arbitrary. Alex’s passion for crew is never explained, and at first this seemed like missing information. But as the film progressed, I realized that Alex’s lack of purpose was the point. She’s a person who likes to put herself in difficult situations and then muscle herself out of them. Alex chooses to major in physics, her worst subject, precisely because she needs to work extra hard to do well. Her intense competitive drive comes from a drive to prove herself, but to who, or for what reason, it’s never quite clear, and you get the sense that Alex herself does not know. The story I made up about Alex (because the screenplay didn’t give me much to work with) was that her attraction to hard work and difficulty is an excuse to avoid knowing herself or other people.
Everyone keeps telling Alex to relax — something Alex herself complains about, in case you don’t notice that everyone keeps telling her to relax. The camera shares Alex’s edgy energy and single-minded viewpoint, moving quickly and staying close to her, with a tight focus on her face and body during workouts and practice. During competitions, the edits are jumpy, confusing, and over too soon, a choice that felt true to Alex’s experience. There are very few scenes of college life outside of the gym and the river, and except for a romance between Alex and her TA Dani (Dilone), there isn’t much sense of Alex’s social life beyond the crew team. Her relationship with Dani felt underdeveloped and somewhat unbelievable as a serious romance. Without giving too much away, Alex’s competitive drive and perfectionism lead to some mental health problems that are outwardly visible, and would have been obvious to an intimate partner, yet Dani seems not to notice. At the same time, I’m not sure I wanted a scene that illuminate Alex’s emotional life. The film works best when it’s like Alex: intense, myopic, and a touch nihilistic.