A collegiate rowing team sets the stage for The Novice, the feature debut of writer/director Lauren Hadaway. Drawing from her own experience as a rower, Hadaway tells the story of Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman), a freshman looking to rise the ranks and make varsity in her first year. Dall’s determination quickly becomes an obsession as she alienates everyone in her orbit in the single-minded pursuit of her goal. What does she have to prove? Where does this need to succeed above all else come from? Hadaway’s lean script opens up plenty of doors for this riveting character drama to walk through.
The Novice may be Hadaway’s debut as a feature director, but this isn’t her first rodeo on a film set. Coming from a small town in Texas where she read newspaper listings for film festivals she never thought she’d be able to attend, the filmmaker fell in love with Tarantino movies at an early age and started on a journey to hustle however she could to get into the film industry. This led her to work in the sound department for some of the most acclaimed films of the past decade, putting in time on films from directors like Guillermo del Toro(Pacific Rim), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Ava DuVernay (Selma), and even Tarantino himself (The Hateful Eight).
All that time working with these masters of the craft has led to a feature debut that feels like Hadaway has been knocking out home runs for years on end. There’s nothing about The Novice that plays like a first-timer working on figuring out their vision. Hadaway arrives to the screen fully-formed, expertly using every filmmaking tool at her disposal to place the audience into the headspace of Alex. The editing, the way the camera moves, the masterful sound design – not a single detail of filmmaking is wasted as the director gives a sensorial experience that places this in a similar vein to Black Swan and that aforementioned Chazelle picture.
Hadaway has noted how she’s drawing from her own “traumatic” experience as a rower (read our interview here) to bring this picture to life, but clearly she’s drawing from her own understanding as well about the nature of having this unflinching desire to succeed. This is a filmmaker who bootstrapped her way into making a first picture that just won several Jury Awards at the Tribeca Film Festival for Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. She knows a thing or two about drive, which perhaps gives her a connection to the line that Alex steps past when she begins to lose control of everything in her life, and even perhaps within herself, as she abandons everything in order to reach this one goal.
While The Novice is a personal film for Hadaway, it’s also one where each audience member can bring their own experience into the equation. While making something highly focused and specific, with a setting unlike any we’ve seen in film before (competitive rowing), and a style that gives the film its own rhythm similar to how we see Alex practicing her rowing technique, this is also a story that can be opened up to many different readings.
We see America’s conflicting ideologies of ingrained exceptionalism (“America, the greatest country in the world!”) clashing against the constant reminder socially that you must integrate well with others, as we see Alex isolate from her team members the more she pushes for success – there’s that American individualism poking in its nasty head. Others can make reads on the queer and romantic text (and subtext) of the film, as Alex’s relationship with rowing offers a similar arc to that of a romantic relationship and the ebbs and flows of a love becoming all-encompassing until someone can (hopefully) find a release from a toxic situation.
There are many avenues that one’s mind can go down when reflecting on this incredibly complex film, and that speaks to how well put-together Hadaway has made this. The Novice is an experiential film that offers up so much meat to chew on, practically demanding repeated viewings whenever the viewer is emotionally ready to take the plunge back into this headspace again. With a top shelf performance from Fuhrman that’s fully convincing in every single scene (of which she is in all of them, practically every frame of the picture), Hadaway has signaled herself as a force to be reckoned with. Surely destined to remain one of the best debuts of the year, if not the decade, this is most assuredly not the last time we’ll be talking about this exciting new filmmaker.