by Brandon Thomas
Those who know me best know that I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. Growing up, I was only interested in playing sports for fun. Once everyone started taking winning seriously, I was out. Even a more-than-casual game of Monopoly is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “Pass.”
Look, I get the allure of competitive sports. To a lot of folks, it’s like a drug and they constantly need that fix. In art, the competitive spirit has made for some wonderful films. Rocky, Hoosiers, and Rudy highlight the best that sports can bring about in people. However, there is a dark side too. Competition can morph into obsession and even borderline addiction. Director Lauren Hadaway’s film The Novice is a riveting depiction of the obsessive lengths an athlete will go to reach their goals.
College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman of Orphan) has set an almost impossible goal for herself: to make it onto the varsity rowing team as a first-year novice. Despite warnings from the coaching staff that novices rarely make varsity, Alex and another novice, Jamie (Amy Forsyth of Coda), devote themselves almost exclusively to training. Whether it’s obsessively eating healthy foods, rowing until they blackout, or solo training on the water before sunrise, the girls attain absolute tunnel vision toward their goal. As the season progresses, Alex’s physical and mental health begins to decline as the prospect of losing varsity becomes a possibility.
The Novice is one of the most confident feature debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Hadaway’s directorial finesse is on point as she keeps the film expertly drifting between sports drama, psychological thriller and tragic romance – all while never committing to any particular genre. It’s a choice that keeps audience expectations constantly fluid and on edge.
That same sense of unpredictability extends to the film’s lead character, too. The early scenes where Alex is presented as the spunky underdog quickly give way to scenes of the character obsessively training, verbally accosting school staff and even mutilating herself. Hadaway’s excellent script doesn’t let Alex off easy, but it also isn’t a complete indictment of her behavior.
The visual language of The Novice is another highlight. Hadaway’s camera does a lot of the heavy lifting as it lingers on Alex’s intense workouts. The focus on Alex’s sweaty, nearly exhausted body, conveys that there’s something not right with this. Again, it walks that fine line between competitiveness and obsession.
With an amazing script, an outstanding lead performance, and a laser-focused director, The Novice ends up being one of the absolute best films of 2021.