The Novice


Practice makes perfect.

(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
NEXT:
8-Bit Christmas

Girl (2018)


Showers aren’t always the great equalizer.

(2018) Drama (NetflixVictor Polster, Arieh Wolthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Kateljine Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Megali Elali, Alice de Borqueville, Alain Honorez, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens, Marie-Louise Wilderijckx, Virginia Hendricksen, Daniel Nicodéme, Els Olaerts, Hélène Theunissen, Alexia Depicker, Steve Driesen, Ingrid Heiderscheidt. Directed by Lukas Dhont

 

Girl is a movie that had the best of intentions, but ends up pissing off a lot of people it was meant to honor. This first feature from Flemish director Dhont is about a young ballerina named Lara (Polster) who has just been provisionally accepted into a prestigious ballet school in Antwerp, necessitating a move there for her father (Wolthalter) and little brother (Bodart). But if undergoing the rigorous, demanding and often punishing training necessary to become a ballerina wasn’t enough, Lara is also transitioning from being a young boy into becoming the gender she knows herself to be.

Her father is incredibly supportive and her classmates seem to be (although there is a scene where they demand that she show her genitalia, which humiliates her) and she has the benefit of a really good counselor (Dhaenens) who repeatedly tells her not to put everything in life off until after she gets her surgery. “You also have to live now,” he wisely tells her.

But Lara, like most adolescents, doesn’t have a ton of patience. She wants to be rid of the male body that she was born with, checking for signs of growing breasts that are not yet apparent, and anxiously wondering if the hormones are working, although her doctors assure her that they are – it just takes time, time that Lara isn’t particularly willing to give. As the pressures mount and her need to be the woman that everyone says she already is, she commits an act of graphic self-harm that moved Netflix to take the unusual step of placing a warning title at the beginning of the film.

The movie has come under heavy criticism from the trans and LGBTQ community, first of all for casting a cis-gender male in the role of Lara, although that complaint isn’t as realistic as you might think; finding a trans actress of the right age who can handle the grueling dancing and training sequences is nearly impossible and it proved to be so for Dhont, who eventually found Polster while casting the background dancers.

And a lucky casting that was indeed. Polster has the grace and dancing chops to pull off the role, but also the facial expressions; Lara isn’t much of a talker and like many adolescents, isn’t able to articulate what’s bothering her. Polster does a good job of using non-verbal acting to convey Lara’s anguish.

The second issue that the LGBTQ community has brought up bears more scrutiny and it is the movie’s almost pornographic obsession with Lara’s crotch. Shot after shot after shot is centered there and we see enough of Polster’s genitalia to last a lifetime. Trans advocates rightly complain that the movie reduces Lara down to her genitalia, and like all people, trans people are much more than the equipment they have. Lara’s clear self-loathing for her body also sends a message to young transgenders that might not necessarily be the one that Dhont meant to send. Gender dysphoria is something that deserves to be explored seriously and Dhont attempts to do that, but at the end of the day, is unsuccessful in that regard.

=I do like that the approach that Dhont takes is almost documentary-like. There isn’t here that you might consider melodramatic beyond the usual melodrama generated by teens. There is a lot here that gives outsiders an idea of what trans folks in the process of transition have to go through and it is nice to see that it is presented in a supportive manner; that isn’t always the case in real life.

At the end of the day I give the film high marks for good intentions, but demerits for not executing them as well as they might have been. This could easily have been an extremely important film, even an essential one, instead of merely being very good.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely handled seriously in the movies. Takes a documentary-like approach.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long and accentuates the most conspicuous aspects of gender dysphoria.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, sexuality, some nudity, adult issues and a shocking scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspired by the story of Nora Monsecour, a Belgian trans ballerina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl, Interrupted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Glass