Films that feature niche sports, ones that aren’t talked about or seen regularly in the media can come across as either a story about camaraderie, coming-of-age, self-discovery or obsession. The Novice is definitely about the latter and its intoxicating.
Alex is in her freshman year at college, she works hard to be the best. When she decides to sign up for the college rowing team, she becomes determined to become the best novice and make the varsity team. Alex likes a challenge, having majored in a subject she doesn’t initially excel in, she soon lets her rowing obsession take over. Her friends and girlfriend, even her school work is left behind as she propels herself further into her obsessive and damaging behaviour to the point, she can’t think of anything else.
A film about rowing could be interesting, an uplifting tale of triumph as one team wins a prestigious race, but a story about one rower who obsesses over the sport until the point of no return, a far more intriguing premise. The Novice could fit very nicely with other films about those who push themselves to the brink over their chosen sport or discipline such as Whiplash, Black Swan, or The Wrestler. Isabelle Fuhrman completely embodies Alex Dall, letting every inch of this character take over. Its horrifying and upsetting in places, particularly when Alex starts to self-harm, attacking her body when it doesn’t go as far as she wants it to. But the determination seen in her face whenever there is an opportunity to go the distance is exhilarating. We see her at her best, her complete worst and in her triumph. We are with every step of the way and can feel the pain and agony she feels and the adrenaline when she’s in that boat rowing in the rain, we can feel it all.
While we are meant to witness Alex’s destructive behaviour and decide whether we want her to succeed or stop, we never fully understand why she wants to be the best novice or in fact the best rower. Any opportunity she is given to prove herself; she takes it. Never trying to win the other team members over or the coaches, this all seems to be something to prove to herself. At some point it might be about the others doubting her and she wants to prove them wrong but right at the end, she almost reveals her supposed winning record time for a race that everyone bailed on, but instead, she wipes it out and keeps it to herself. She knows how good she is and doesn’t need the approval of anyone else. Despite the insane and intense energy radiating off the film, this is a slow, sombre and very satisfying ending.
The Novice is playing at BFI Flare Film Festival 16-27 March 2022