The Novice (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Driven to compete all the way

“The Novice” is a little but undeniably intense character drama which will make you wince more than once for good reasons. As palpably and disturbingly conveying to us its very competitive heroine’s physical and psychological journey, the movie makes us more interested in what really makes her ticks, and we come to brace ourselves more as observing more of how obsessively and relentlessly she keeps pushing herself all the way.

When we meet Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) at the beginning of the film, she is going through her first days in the campus of some university, and the movie focuses on how much she tries to excel herself everyday. Although she is not particularly good at physics, she chose it as her major nonetheless just because it looks challenging to her, and she is quite determined to study and prepare as much as she can for getting good grades. When we see her taking a class examination, she seems as if her whole life depended on her examination score, and, not so surprisingly, she is the last one to leave around the end of the examination time.

In addition, Alex also joins the rowing team of the university, and, again, she becomes quite competitive during the following test and training sessions. Although she is just one of novice team members for now, she wants to be the No.1 in the group for joining the varsity group later, and that aim becomes the main focus for her besides doing fairly well in her physics department classes.

It seems that she should probably have chosen other sports instead of rowing, but Alex does not want to give up at all even after her embarrassing moment which occurs during one minor competition, and the mood becomes more tense and disturbing as she continues to push herself as usual. While she keeps focusing more and more on training harder, her mind often becomes hazy and then goes into a sort of trance mode, and she seems to be a bit more relaxed during that rather troubling state of hers, but she is soon back in her usual pressured status.

At least, there are several people who care about her to each own degree. The two team coaches are always ready to give her some more help and advice, and one of them actually allows Alex to do an early morning training alone by herself. Although many of the team members are not particularly cordial to Alex, one of them comes to give her some support as a fellow novice member because she has been also considerably pressured as her college scholarship depends a lot on her athletic result in the team.

And there is also Dani (Dilone), who was actually the teaching assistant of one of the classes attended by Alex. Although Alex has frequently annoyed Dani due to her sheer competitiveness, they find themselves attracted to each other when they later meet again at an evening meeting, and Alex subsequently finds herself living in Dani’s residence. Dani is soon going to leave for studying in some other university, but Alex gets some comfort from her at least for now, and Dani is willing to understand and tolerate how Alex is constantly driven to prove herself by any means necessary.

However, Alex still cannot possibly stop herself from being driven by her growing competitiveness, and director/writer/co-editor Lauren Hadaway, who made her feature film debut here, and her crew members including cinematographer Tood Martin frequently did a commendable job of depicting Alex’s increasingly unstable state of mind with considerable verisimilitude and dramatic impact. While Martin’s camera effectively establishes constant cold and grey atmosphere on the screen, Hadaway and her co-editor Nathan Nugent vividly present Alex’s confusion and obsession via deliberately choppy editing, and the result is further accentuated by occasional sound distortion effects on the soundtrack.

Some of you may be frustrated as the movie never lets you have the full understanding of its heroine’s pathological obsession, but this rather frustrating enigma is accompanied with vivid third-dimensional human details thanks to the strong performance from Isabelle Fuhrman, who deservedly received the Best Actress Award when the movie was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival several months ago (It also won the Best Cinematography Award for US Narrative and the Founders Award for the Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film, by the way). While never making any excuse on her character’s edgy aspects, Fuhrman ably conveys to us her character’s mental and physical deterioration along the story, and we come to care more about whether her character will eventually reach to the breaking point.

Around Fuhrman, several other main cast members hold each own place fairly well. While Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond are solid as two very different coaches in the story, Amy Forsyth and Dilone are also effective in their respective supporting roles, and Dilone is particularly good when her character tries to be more patient and understanding during one certain key scene between her and Fuhrman later in the story.

In conclusion, “The Novice” is surely a tough stuff to watch, but it is still quite worthwhile to watch for Hadaway’s skillful direction and Fuhrman’s darkly intense performance, which is incidentally her best work since her chilling breakthrough turn in “The Orphan” (2009). You may not like her character that much even at the end of the story, but Fuhrman’s uncompromising acting will captivate you from the beginning to the end, and you will probably be relieved to see her character finally getting a bit of peace of mind at least.

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