Review: ‘The Novice’ tracks a young woman’s descent into athletics and madness

A woman in a hoodie in “The Novice.”
Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice.”
(IFC Films)

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“Can you give yourself a break?” “Relax.” “Weirdo, chill.” “You gotta know when to quit.” These are just some of the requests, demands and pieces of advice roundly rejected by Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), the spiky antiheroine of Lauren Hadaway’s visceral and bracing debut, “The Novice,” during her hellish descent into madness as a first-year collegiate rower.

A repetitive mantra ping-pongs around Alex’s brain, “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs,” overlapping with overheard praise given to her competitors and records to be broken. The jagged strings of Alex Weston’s score push and pull in time, melding with her jumbled thoughts, stitching together an obsessive aural soundscape that underpins this psychological horror film by way of a sports movie. Hadaway’s previous career as a sound editor is all over this piece, as is her personal experience as a collegiate rower. She has crafted this film as catharsis, and like her protagonist’s journey, it’s both harrowing and triumphant.

Fuhrman, known for her memorable performance in the 2009 horror movie “Orphan,” delivers a fully and physically committed performance as the darkly compelling Alex. A freshman at some vaguely Northeastern college (they shot at Trent University in Ontario), she spends her time huddled in the poorly lighted lecture halls and libraries, furiously scribbling, taking physics quizzes two, three, even four times, to the frustration of her TA (the excellent model-actress Dilone). On some unknown whim, she dashes to an introductory crew practice, descending into the bowels of a concrete, fluorescent-lighted basement gym. In this dim, grim location, she’ll unearth both her salvation and her destruction on the novice crew team.


It’s love at first ERG, and Alex has found a new drug. The world falls away, tunneling in on her singular physical experience, ’60s love ballads washing over the slow-motion pumping of legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs. After, she collapses in a puddle of sweat, in a nearly post-coital haze of physical exertion. The love affair with rowing quickly turns toxic.

As Alex pushes herself harder and harder to get better, all we see is her determination, as she fills some inner void with quiz scores and personal records, attacking her tasks, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” living by President John F. Kennedy’s space race maxim. She’s not the best, but she can work the hardest, and that is all she’s got. We do come to know Alex, to understand her in some way, but we will never really know her, because even she doesn’t understand why she pushes herself to this self-destruction, except for the sake of the compulsion to do so.

The only person who might somewhat understand her motivation is also her antagonist, Jamie (Amy Forsyth), the other novice with a chance to move up to varsity. Jamie is casually and coldly competitive, entitled by her own talent. Forsyth easily embodies the girl jock posture and manner of speech: carrying herself with an efficient capability, absorbing the lingo and politics of the team, eating constantly to replace all the calories left in the basement. She owns her belonging among the other athletes. It’s clear that Alex, who has applied her chillingly ruthless mind-set previously only to academics and is new to both the physical demands of a sport and the emotional demands of a team, would never have been capable of navigating the waters of these competitive women, who don’t offer words of encouragement, only derisive criticism and profane insults.

However, Jamie has noble motivations for her striving, desperately in need of a scholarship. Alex doesn’t need the money, but she is in need of something else that cannot be validated. Because her motivations are so unknowable, she occupies a strange space as hero, victim and villain of her own self-inflicted terror. We come to actively root against her as her blood becomes poisoned with obsession and paranoia.

Hadaway draws us so far into Alex’s subjectivity that we experience every disorientation and aural and visual hallucination, which are sometimes terrifying and sometimes wonderfully intoxicating. A drunken seduction turns colorfully kaleidoscopic, embodied and pleasurable thanks to her partner, but also because her mind-body connection has been fully forged, for better and for worse. Pleasure is eclipsed by pain, though there is pleasure in that for Alex too, inflicting her own wounds, from the bloody sore in her hand that oozes like a stigmata, proof of her martyrdom, to the business-like slashes she administers to the skin of her ribs with scissors. Fuhrman is both magnetic and terrifyingly opaque in every moment.

Hadaway wrote and directed “The Novice”; she also edited the film, with Nathan Nugent. It’s deft, incisive and terrifically energetic, proceeding at an odd, jittery and breakneck pace. The boat races are swift and violent; the color palette is cold and gray. Scene transitions whipsaw with the speed of an ERG handle, all quilted together with that addictively rhythmic sound design. It’s invigorating filmmaking in service of a brutal and bloody cautionary tale, a sports movie that isn’t inspirational in the least, in which rowing does not build Alex up, but grinds her down, never offering up those easy lessons or platitudes we’re used to. “The Novice,” which received five Spirit Award nominations this week, is a startling, singular and masterful debut, introducing a daring filmmaker possessed of an unequivocal mastery of her craft and most important, something to say with it.

‘The Novice’

Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes

Rated: R, for language, some sexuality and brief disturbing material

Playing: Starts Dec. 17, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles; also on VOD