One of the best things about film festivals, beyond the camaraderie of fellow movie geeks and the ego trip undertaken when creating buzz rather than perpetuating it, is when you’re surprised. When you’re knocked on your ass by a film you’d never heard of, one of your fillers you scheduled between the latest from the A-listers. Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice didn’t just surprise me, it ran wild over the rest of the movies I saw at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, trampling over my memories of them until it was certain that all I could think about was Hadaway’s full-throttle style and her film’s blistering performances. Only fitting for a movie about the consequences of toxic overachievement—of what happens when quasi-liberal education is a money-making machine, burning kids like coal. A movie that puts the “extra” in “extracurricular.” The Novice’s anxious and obsessive hustle culture horror wants to be #1 or nothing. No participation ribbons. And none will be necessary: Hadaway’s work signals a leap straight to the top of the podium as one of the year’s best debuts.
Writer/director/editor Hadaway has worked most extensively up until now as an ADR and dialogue supervisor and sound editor for movies like Whiplash, and the precision with which she deploys brutal mental and physical obstacles in The Novice—manifested as everything from sound effects to harsh cuts to scribbled credits font—reflects her expertise. And that’s not even mentioning the heart of the film: A ferocious Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall. Dall is a hardcore college freshman, intense in every facet of her life as she rechecks and overthinks physics tests, hooks up with a frat boy simply to get that experience out of the way, and decides to become a varsity rower…despite lacking any experience, y’know, rowing.
But Hadaway certainly has the experience. Speaking to The Queer Review, she explained that much of the film is autobiographical. “I essentially took four years of rowing and ten years of coming of age and wrote The Novice,” said Hadaway. “A lot of the most traumatic emotional scenes were pulled from breakups, while the physically traumatic elements were pulled from my experience as a rower. They were either things I experienced firsthand, saw in teammates, or spoke to other rowers about.”
Anyone who was competitive in a school activity, whether it was football or academic decathlon or marching band, can relate to the unhealthy relationship you can have with these things while growing up. You give everything, because you want to be worth something. It’s like how teen romances easily become melodramatic—everything’s always dialed up to eleven by hormone goggles and social pressure. The Novice thoroughly understands this, but never undercuts it with cinematic shorthand or hand-waving explanations. This is just how it is. It sucks, and it’s harmful, but that’s reality for Dall. Hadaway was rowing 20 hours a week throughout college. It feels like Dall’s doing double that.
She navigates a script that’s personal familiarity with its subject matter is bolstered with detailed flourishes, the kind of specific writing that frees up a director shoot settings more expressionistically. You’ve probably heard that some filmmakers make cities into “characters.” Hadaway makes the open water into one of life’s only soothing, nearly sexual comforts; the brutalist concrete basement cell housing the team’s rowing machines into its seductive, enabling villain. The latter offers success, records—quantitative proof that Dall isn’t just good, but better than—while also being a sacrificial altar. The school’s raven mascot permeates the film with pagan imagery, black feathers and needy beak demanding more sweat and blood for its murky cause. Student athletes are already exploited to a ridiculous extent by the powerful NCAA, but too rarely do these stories take into consideration what a false and ingrained belief in pure, achievement-based meritocracy makes these athletes do to themselves. It might not all be internal, but it’s all internalized.
To that end, Fuhrman’s a vibrating human itch, brows crunched low and her tightly-wound form constantly in fidgety motion. Far more than a collection of tics, which is what these kinds of easy-to-simplify characters sometimes bring out of actors, Fuhrman’s powerful embodiment of this overcompensating intensity whirls through scenes as a complete and terrifying creation. She is either fully clenched, or a bursting pressure cooker. Driven by the unrelenting need to overcome, Dall brings a kind of consumptive and competitive tension to all her relationships, whether it’s her more talented freshman rowing rival Jamie (Amy Forsyth, tough and confident), her TA-turned-lover Dani (Dilone), or Charlotte Ubben’s scene-stealing hardass upperclassman.
The only people to escape this are her coaches, the goober Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) and badass Coach Edwards (Kate Drummond). Both counsel moderation, having (to some extent) grown out of the mindset currently consuming Alex. Edwards’ pre-sunrise workouts reveal that it never truly goes away, but their survival is proof that it’s been tamped down to manageable levels. But for Dall, in the here and now, psychological survival means pushing herself to the brink of physical survival.
This internal war, framed through an ambitious blend of racing schedules and love stories, proves Hadaway can do more than just write what she knows. Feuding textures of jagged and smooth flee from the ticking timers of personal bests, impending wake-up alarms, and blood tainted by infection. Relatable body horror begins to turn practice even further into self-flagellation, while everyone prostrates themselves if not to afford their education (the movie also has a few deft things to say about the blue-bloods dominating the rowing world), then to afford living in a society where meaning only comes from winning.
In interviews, Hadaway name-drops Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher and Damien Chazelle. Makers of intense and uncomfortable thrillers, emphasizing technical representations of troubled psyches. But she also mentions Quentin Tarantino, whose gonzo boldness might initially seem incongruous with her abilities. It’s not. The Novice’s unrelenting and self-assured neurosis requires some pitch-black punchlines, keyed-in dialogue and aesthetic chutzpah—which Hadaway displays in spades. Keep an eye on her, as The Novice may have just revealed an up-and-coming master.
The Novice hits select theaters and digital platforms on December 17.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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