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Film Review: The Novice
by Kathryn Loggins

US Narrative Competition
Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway

In Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut she has herself a winner - in more ways than one. This compelling, dark and gritty film went on to win three top honors in the US Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, namely Best Feature, Best Actress (Isabelle Furman) and Best Cinematography (Todd Martin). These accolades are well deserved in a film that is both a coming-of-age story and also a dangerous look at how blind ambition can push a person beyond the brink, both physically and mentally. Isabelle Furman (Orphan, 2009) gives an electric performance as Alex Dall, a queer introverted college freshman, who is hell-bent on making the varsity rowing team, even though she is a complete novice at the sport. While she pushes her body and her mind to the limit in order to prove herself to her teammates, she is faced with the true cost of her own determination. The camera moves around her like a menace as she trains on rowing machines in stark basement facilities and in complete darkness on the water. The audience gets to see inside her mind, but only as much as the filmmaker wants you to. She has relationships, brief encounters, college experiences, but ultimately it’s only about rowing and getting better no matter whom she might hurt along the way.

The Novice feels akin to gritty psychological thrillers like Whiplash, Fight Club and Black Swan, so if you’re hoping for an uplifting sports movie, this is not the film for you. Lauren Hadaway loosely based the film on her own experiences with collegiate rowing and it's clear that she doesn’t have some romanticized view of the sport, like the casual viewer might. In her director's statement she gives this visceral description of what rowing is to her: “Rowing looks elegant. Easy. Boring. It’s the ultimate con. Because when you’re in a boat sprinting for seven minutes straight, when your legs are turning to blocks, when your vision is tunneling to a pinpoint, when you’re swallowing your own puke to keep from missing a stroke, when you’ve lost control of your bladder, when your body is rippling in chills, on the edge of exercise-induced orgasm, rowing is anything but beautiful.” Sounds like fun, where do I sign up? But all joking aside, the movie isn't meant to be fun. It’s not a “sports” movie; it’s a grueling look at the downward spiral of one woman’s journey on her quest to find herself.

Not all audiences will fall in love with this type of movie, but the inventive cinematography and the propulsive score are undeniably compelling. As we watch Alex in various states of physical distress, the music and the camera work gives us insight into what is going on in her tumultuous mind. These tactics are also used to convey a sense of sensuality throughout the film, whether it’s during rowing practice or within her relationship with a Teacher’s Assistant, Dani, played by Dilone (Halston, Netflix). Through Dani, Alex experiences a sexual awakening that is also paralleled in the physical and mental advancement of her rowing skills. These scenes have a dream-like and abstract quality to them and are underscored, very pointedly, with two Brenda Lee songs - “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” and “I’m Sorry.” The use of these songs is comforting and somewhat romantic, but also jarring, because the contrast to the metallic and haunting score is so stark. Ultimately these filmmaking techniques of a deft eye and a keen ear complement each other beautifully and, with the support of stellar ensemble performances and artful direction, make a compelling and innovative film. I think Lauren Hardway is a filmmaker to watch.