This is a movie about a gay college student joins her university’s rowing team and embarks on an obsessive physical and mental struggle to make it to the top varsity boat at all costs. In writer and director Lauren Hadaway’s narrative feature debut, The Novice, an overachieving attitude is depicted via the perspective of a psychological thriller movie, yielding propulsively dramatic effects and a fiery, obsessive performance by Isabelle Fuhrman. Surprisingly, the obsessive demand for achievement is transferred to collegiate rowing, a sport that emphasizes teamwork above individual accomplishments. One may argue that pushing their bodies to their limits and focusing on personal improvement, times, and growth are insignificant in the great scheme of things, given that the most effective approach to win races is to work as a unified unit in synchronization.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman, who is unquestionably driven to the role and is breaking herself psychologically and physically in it) isn’t your typical student-athlete. She gets captivated with rowing physics, training, and achieving individual times impressive enough to secure a position on the varsity team, to the point where the student portion of the equation appears to be slipping away. Except it doesn’t, because Alex (a physics major despite having difficulty with the topic) studies excessively and frequently double- and triple-takes examinations until she is certain she has received a top-tier grade.
Alex manages to squeeze in time for a social life now and again, though she’s mostly pressing herself to try new things out of a sense of self-imposed obligation. That much is clear as she engages in a one-night encounter merely for the sake of it, seemingly undisturbed by the insensitive jock who disregards her pleas for something less raunchy. Fortunately for Alex, he isn’t a good fuck and is out in 15 seconds (and nearly loses his condom), so it’s all chalked up to college exploits before returning to the rowing grind.
There’s also something much darker brewing inside The Novice, as Alex pushes her training regimen to the limit (with the blood and scars on clear display), often with covered in sweat close-ups emphasizing every stressful body movements set to a ritually voice inside her head, trying to burn the workout program into her mind (set to one of the year’s best scores from Alex Weston). She also pays no attention to her coaches’ advise to ease up during the off-season, preferring to keep pushing herself.
Lauren Hadaway takes advantage of the fact that the team mascot is also a raven to give the self-inflicted psychological torture an Edgar Allen Poe-like flavor, complete with loud heartbeats and hallucinations of ravens themselves. Take Edgar Allen Poe and mix it with the tone of a Darren Aranofsky horror mind-fuck, and swap out Whiplash’s drumming with rowing, and you’ve got a good idea of what The Novice is.
While all of this is punishing Alex in ways that are becoming increasingly difficult to watch (and will undoubtedly be triggering for some), she does develop two fascinating relationships. The first is with Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth, who just had a brief but endearing supporting role in the excellent CODA), who is almost the and the only girl giving the sport her all since she really needs the scholarships up for grabs. Naturally, the issue arises as to how much of this is true friendship and how much of this is Alex’s delight at the prospect of genuine competition inside the squad. Also, in one of the weaker subplots, Alex develops an unclear love relationship with Dani (Dilone), her teacher’s assistant, which only serves as a vehicle for Alex to give out exposition about her history and what motivates her to excruciating excellence.
Watching movie online for ‘The Novice’ primarily provides explanations rather than answers. There’s a reason Alex is doing this, and while it may not be relatable, it’s enough to connect with her and hope she receives mental assistance in tandem with her accomplishment. It’s a gloomy story about unfathomable levels of ambition and determination, one that progressively turns from drama to nightmarish terror. There are some missing pieces and undercooked elements in the story, but Isabelle Furman is a constant lightning bolt of energy, ensuring The Novice finishes as a confident, rattling debut.