“The Novice” is a dark-side-of-sports thriller. It’s a movie, like “Personal Best” or “Prefontaine,” that a lot of star athletes will probably be able to relate to, but it’s also a movie for anyone who ever felt existentially uncomfortable in gym class. The central character — and that’s no exaggeration, since her moody, relentless thousand-yard stare anchors every scene — is Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a freshman at Wellington University, an overcast dystopian oasis of modernist concrete slabs, who decides to join the rowing team there. She’s not looking for an athletic scholarship (she was second in her high-school class and has won a full ride), and it’s a sport she has no experience in. At first, as she buckles down and starts her ERG workouts, strapping herself into a rowing machine that measures the amount of work being done, she seems as physically self-conscious and out-of-sorts as Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher.
But Dall, as she’s known, didn’t join the team to lose. She’s consumingly competitive — with her teammates, and with herself. She wants to defeat every obstacle, to master her pain (and to let it master her), not just to win but to excel, in every way and at all cost. Does she have a passion for rowing? We’re not sure; it’s almost irrelevant. Her passion is for succeeding. She treats rowing as a military endeavor, going at it with a joyless masochistic precision. She’s the new recruit (one of the team novices, which is what they’re called before they can move up to varsity), but she’s also her own domineering drill sergeant. One of the semi-jokes of the movie is that the team’s two coaches, Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) and Coach Edwards (Kate Drummond), are “stern taskmasters,” but they’re total pussycats when it comes to training their most fanatical novice. They have to keep telling her to work less hard.
“The Novice” took the prize for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and it was nominated earlier this week for five Independent Spirit Awards (the film opens tomorrow). It’s the first feature written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, and Hadaway, working with ferocious skill, makes every shot sensual and immersive. She crafts the experiential version of an athlete’s cautionary coming-of-age tale crossed with elements of a self-punishing true-life psychological horror movie. We’re in those ERGs, right along with Dall, tugging away at those oars, and we’re in the boats during the races, drenched in her sweat, beyond exhausted, then in the bathroom afterwards, massaging the blood blisters that have formed on her palms.
Hadaway was the sound editor on “Whiplash,” and there’s a way that “The Novice” echoes that film’s relentless portrait of a young achiever who eats himself alive to reach for the top. But Miles Teller’s drummer had a mentor-slash-tormenter who was whipping him along, in the form of J.K. Simmons’ debonair jazzbo monster. Whereas in “The Novice,” it’s Dall who’s her own worst enemy. There are training montages that evoke the drug montages in “Requiem for a Dream,” and ironically lyrical rowing sequences set to the velvet croons of Brenda Lee and Connie Francis. The film also assaults you with rowing lingo, which flies by in a way that’s sometimes hard to pinpoint (Coach: “You’all are doing 60-minute runs, the rest of you are in 4s”).
Isabelle Fuhrman infuses Dall with an ambiguous glower of ambition that’s scary and human. Dall, as we learn, is also the college’s hardest working (though maybe least successful) physics major, taking every quiz three times, sitting there long after everyone else has left the tiered classroom, and still she doesn’t make the grade. Is she committed to physics? Not necessarily, though she succumbs to the flirtations of her tough-love TA, Dani (Dilone), going to see a gig she’s performing and then falling into bed with her. In these scenes, Fuhrman, with her delicate severity, makes Dall charismatic and relatable. If she would just settle down and be a normal student, the world would be her oyster. But that other part of her — Dall The Overachiever — is like a zombie identity that takes her over. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine her as the villain of another film: the athlete who’s too focused, too selfish, too aggro.
So are we supposed to like her? Lauren Hadaway was on the rowing team in college and based this movie on her experiences, so the answer might seem to be yes. Dall is the heroine, and we’re supposed to find her sympathetic, to relate to her experience and be drawn inside it. Hadaway is already the kind of filmmaker who can do that. Yet there’s a way that we remain distant from Dall, almost alienated from her quest. She is given a shot to move up to varsity regatta, but she puts off everyone on the team, to the point that they conspire against her. And the film is so single-minded about presenting her neurotic perfectionism that we can’t help but recoil from it, can’t help but feel that she’s on the wrong path. The film thinks so too. In a way, it’s waiting for her to catch up.
What gives “The Novice” its resonance is that I don’t think, at heart, it’s ultimately a movie about athletics. Rather, it’s a drama about a newly prevalent state-of-mind: the feeling, especially on the part of those today who are young, that the difference between total achievement and anything less than total achievement is life and death — that their future may hinge on killing themselves to succeed. This is a mentality that has emerged, at its core level, out of an increasingly corrupt economic structure — the perception (and maybe, in some ways, the reality) that if you’re not at the top you’re nowhere. “The Novice” uses college rowing to dig into the psycho-emotional metaphysic of that belief. The movie captures what it looks like when the hunger to win blots out life.