(2021) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Fuhrmann, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross, Nikki Duval, Eve Kanyo, Al Bernstein, Robert Ifedi, David Guthrie. Directed by Lauren Hadaway
There is a fine line between determination to attain a goal, and obsession. Determination is to be admired; it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. Obsession, though, is terrifying to behold; all logic and reason go out the window in a single-minded quest to achieve that goal, regardless of the cost.
Alex Dall (Fuhrmann) is a college freshman in an unnamed Northeastern university who is majoring in physics – which is not only not her best subject but it is, in fact, her worst. She is on a full ride scholarship, but she works like a demon, taking tests over and over (and sometimes, over) again in a quest to be the very best. On apparent impulse, she signs up to try out for the novice rowing team.
Alex has absolutely no experience in rowing, nor does she have any in any sport at all. Her body is soft and non-muscular; this would seem to be a lark – except Alex is determined not only to make the novice team but also the varsity. Only two novices are selected by the easygoing Coach Pete (Cherry) to try out for the varsity; naturally gifted athlete Jamie Brill (Forsyth) and Alex.
There she is greeted by derisive and often profane criticisms, and overhears the praise given to Jamie, which inspires her to work harder. On the ERG (stationary rowing) machines, she takes the instructions given to her by Coach Pete – “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” – as a kind of a mantra, working out often to the point of retching. She develops sores on her hands, ribs and thighs – some self-inflicted – from her workouts. Her work ethic impresses Head Coach Edwards (Drummond) but her manic attitude serves to turn off most of her fellow rowers, although Jamie and pretty teachers assistant Dani (fashion model turned actress Dilone) who try to figure out the complicated Alex, who perhaps doesn’t know herself what drives her, although later evidence proves that she does and it is revealed to the audience, although I won’t get into it here. But as Alex’s drive descends into mania, her body and mind begin to show dangerous signs of cracking.
First-time feature director Hadaway turns to the director’s chair after a fine career as a sound editor, and bases her debut on her own experiences as a collegiate rower, which lends a good deal of realism and authenticity to the film. There have been films about rowing before – Varsity Blues comes to mind – but few films on obsessive goal-seeking have reached the heights of this one.
Part of the reason is Fuhrmann, who turns in a performance that is already attracting attention. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing her up for major roles in important movies in the next couple of years; she absolutely dominates the screen and has some really nice chemistry with Forsyth. Cinematographer Todd Martin also does some innovative work here, although from time to time Hadaway tends to get a bit cutesy with her framing and camera effects, a sin that first-time directors often commit. When those things happen, we are drawn out of the story and aware that there is someone directing – and there’s no better way to kill a cinematic mood than that.
The Novice has already been nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and Fuhrmann has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, although she’ll have an uphill battle to get one. This is one of those indie films that isn’t always a pleasure to watch – but when the end credits begin, you are left with the realization you have just watched a terrific movie. This is one you won’t want to miss.
REASONS TO SEE: Fuhrmann gives a career-establishing performance. The cinematography is innovative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to temptation to get too artsy, pulling us out of the story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won best American Narrative Feature at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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