Review: The Novice

Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, a college freshman joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond and Charlotte Ubben.

Anyone who’s seen Orphan knows that Isabelle Fuhrman can pull off an intense role effortlessly, and here she does it again. The presence that she brings to this role is one that any actor would be envious of. The performance is enthralling, she captures Alex as complex and broken yet intelligent and, as the film clearly explores, dedicated to a fault. What’s interesting is that she’s not inherently sociable, generous or charming but there’s an undefinable quality Fuhrman brings to her, letting you see the potential behind her obsessive behaviour. There’s then the fascinating contrast between the strength and determination she puts out into the world versus her internally overflowing insecurity and vulnerability. Pairing her with Dilone as Dani was a fantastic piece of casting, their romance feels entirely natural and for once displays a genuinely fluid attitude towards gender and sex, as well as a great example of bisexuality. Dilone brings sweet but sharp qualities, portraying a character who’s strong, kind and compassionate.

Put simply, there isn’t an aspect of The Novice where Lauren Hadaway isn’t excelling; visually, thematically and emotionally, it’s all absolutely fantastic. The visual hits you first, it uses a lot of dark tones to reflect the intensity and furious nature of its story. Hadaway brings through the unrelenting and elevated focus in her directorial style. Alex’s emotional state is keenly portrayed by the way the camera moves and the effects are added, as well as the top notch editing. Not to mention that there are also some purely phenomenal shots along the way, the locations were perfectly chosen and Hadaway unquestionably makes the most of them. There’s then touches here and there thrown in of more metaphorical imagery, something that can be so easily out of place or heavy-handed, but here thankfully, it has a light and meaningful use.

You’d probably have to watch this film a few times to really take in everything that it has to say, because it deals with so many different issues. At the forefront it tackles the pressures that we put upon ourselves to succeed, and how that can lead to a dangerous flirtation with our limits. It dives into quite a few different aspects of mental health, and one of the most interesting that it threads into the story is self-harm. It’s weaved subtly throughout but it’s not until one particularly overt moment that it really hits how much it influences Alex’s actions. There’s a growingly haunting atmosphere that comes from how Hadaway organically builds this story. It becomes frantic or even menacing at times but there’s forever one foot firmly in vulnerability. All of which is further helped by some brilliant uses of music throughout the film.

The Novice is not your average college movie, it’s an intense and powerful exploration of the road to self-destruction. Lauren Hadaway brings a story of mental health to life like no-one else before her, it takes the themes we’re familiar with and pushes them to another level, making something both hard-hitting and gripping, without becoming overly gritty. All of its different elements work together to get as potent as possible of an impact and Isabelle Fuhrman gives a career highlight performance, the intensity she brings is unforgettable.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯ | 10/10

Available now on Digital

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare 2022

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