Film Review: The Novice is unrelenting in its depiction of striving for physical perfection

Though presented in the guise of a character drama, The Novice is very much a psychological thriller detailing the compulsive, obsessive need one can hone in their attempt to perfect their field of interest.  For the central figure in Lauren Hadaway‘s dark effort, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman, dedicating herself wholeheartedly to the role, both physically and mentally), it’s college-level rowing.  The irony that such a sport relies mainly on the idea of teamwork rather than individual achievement is not lost on Hadaway, and it’s this parallel mindset that Alex applies herself to that essentially undoes her hard work.

Majoring in physics, though finding it difficult to connect with the subject, student-athlete Alex opts to focus more on the athlete quota as she becomes dangerously enamoured with the physics of rowing.  Looking to constantly best her own times and work her way up to a primed varsity spot, her obsession with the idea of being “the perfect athlete” starts to dangerously affect her role as a student, finding herself double and triple-taking exams so she can earn the right grade necessary to keep her in the sport.

Implementing a mentality not unlike that of the intensity evoked through the film Whiplash, melded with the metaphorical temperament of a Darren Aronofsky picture, The Novice is near-unbearable as it inflicts psychological torment on both Alex and us as an audience, watching helplessly as she spirals further out of control.  Even when she attempts to partake in the normalistic rituals of college life – namely casual sex with an interchangeable jock who barely treats her with respect during their brief tryst – it feels like an act of self-obligation rather than genuine curiosity, all of it merely a measure of “engagement” so she can feel less guilty when returning to her grind.

Among the more triggering material, Hadaway does offer Alex the smallest of reprieves with the established connection between herself and both Jamie and Dani.  Jamie (Amy Forsyth) is quite possibly the only other rower giving the sport her all similar to Alex.  Knowing she needs to excel in order to win the scholarship on hand means their friendship is ripe with rivalry, and given Alex’s oft-questionable mentality means any connection between the two of them can hardly be taken at a genuine value.  More genuine, but just as peppered with questionable intent, is her relationship with Dani (Dilone), a teacher’s assistant she becomes romantically involved with.  Equally exhausted with Alex’s obsessive personality as she is intoxicated by it, Dani is the closest thing Alex has to a sense of normalcy but the film delights in its torturous temperament that we already know any light Alex deserves will remain constantly dimmed.

A film that remains deliberately vague in its treatment of Alex’s psyche – we can only hope she seeks help but are never witness to it in actuality – The Novice still remains somewhat relatable through the empathy evoked throughout.  A startling debut from Hadaway, cemented by an embodied turn from the stunning Fuhrman, The Novice more than clears the finish line in its intriguing, horrific look at personal achievement.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Novice is screening in select theatres and on VOD in the United States from December 17th, 2021.  An Australian release is yet to be determined.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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