Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut The Novice is fraught with tension, but also stripped back and hugely compelling – here’s our review. 

Winning. That moment of triumph and elation, the expression of joy and relief, something the ultra-competitive Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) never gets close to in The Novice. It’s all about winning, being the best. Satisfaction and achievement don’t come into it.

A straight-A student with no interest in rowing, she hustles her way onto the university team, aiming for a seat in the varsity boat. For most students, that would mean a much-prized scholarship but, with her academic record, she doesn’t need it. All she wants is to win at something else and, settling in to a regime of rowing machine workouts, she works obsessively towards that place, determined to knock down every obstacle in her way, whatever the cost. It’s mechanical, military, and borderline masochistic.

In her debut feature, director/ writer Lauren Hadaway finds herself on familiar territory: her first film was the short Row and she was also sound editor on Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. The Novice plays out like a first cousin to Chazelle’s adrenaline trip: admittedly, there’s no sadistic teacher, but Alex makes up for that single-handedly, with her all-consuming obsession to be the first past the post.

The film drips sweat – you can almost smell it – and the blood flows from her hands, especially a stigmata-like injury on her palm which stubbornly refuses to go away. She weeps with frustration and self-hatred at the slightest glimmer of coming second. And throughout, Fuhrman’s face burns with intensity and an unwavering focus that turns the story into an emotional thriller. Other than knowing the compulsion to excel has always been in her DNA, we never wholly understand what drives her, but nobody on the screen understands either and she can’t explain it herself.

For all the drama packed into its 90 minutes, this is a film that’s sparse on dialogue, relying instead on its physicality and powerful, superbly photographed images to tell the story. What words there are come mainly from the rowing coaches, plus the occasional, more intimate conversation. The rest are in the background, often muffled, so that our focus is on what’s happening inside Alex’s head. Hadaway’s directorial debut is hugely confident, stripped back, lean, and fraught with tension.

With its tenacious, near-painful grip, this is a compelling watch, full of moments when you can hardly bear to watch what Alex does next. Which is when you find yourself sucked into her world of compulsion.

The Novice is out now.

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