‘The Novice’ Film Review: Director Lauren Hadaway Makes a Splash With Intense First Feature

A freshman college rower pushes herself to her physical and mental limits in this Spirit Award nominee

The Novice
IFC Films

Women’s rowing probably received peak attention during reports of the college admissions bribery scandal: It’s not hard to imagine that attempts by “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin to enroll daughter Olivia Jade in USC as a crew member generated more headlines than women’s rowing programs’ actual wins. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances underscored by the beauty of writer-director Lauren Hadaway’s debut film, “The Novice.”

Hadaway, who has worked with sound and dialogue in film for a decade, provides an inside glimpse into a women’s sport of which many of us are woefully unaware. At the center of the film, billed as a thriller, is Isabelle Fuhrman’s Alex Dall.

An aspiring rower and honors student, Alex does not possess the heartwarming narrative that so many movie athletes do. There is nothing particularly at stake if she fails at rowing. As an honors student, she already has a full ride. So Alex’s real threat or antagonist in the film appears to be her incessant need to master challenging tasks, even if they don’t matter in the larger scheme.

Alex, we learn, knows physics is her worst subject but chooses it as her major anyway. Whether she has lofty plans for her studies is not highlighted. In similar fashion, she pursues rowing with no real purpose other than her desire to master a challenge, even if it comes with unnecessary physical suffering.

In an age where there are abundant conversations about kids’ sports competitions not declaring winners in order to protect young people’s mental health, Hadaway’s decision to present another side is eye-opening. Alex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either; within the narrative of millennial- and Gen Z–bashing, it is difficult for many to envision that overachievers like Alex still exist. They do, and the damage they are doing is harmful, even if only to themselves.

Because Hadaway has drawn on her own personal experiences as a college athlete, Alex comes off as extremely realistic. At no point does Hadaway glamorize the amount of work and sacrifice necessary to excel in the sport; what she shows instead is the gargantuan effort it takes to scratch out even a modicum of success.

Comparisons to Natalie Portman’s Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” come to mind, as well as Miles Teller’s Andrew in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” (Hadaway was a sound editor on the latter film.) Pushing or being pushed to one’s limits in ballet or music is understood as a more common and accepted practice. Rowing, on the other hand, has never been a popular sport to explore on film, especially not narratively.

And in this regard, Hadaway makes tremendous headway. Her love for the sport is evident in how her lens captures the breathtaking beauty of the boat, the water, and the rowers becoming one. At various points in “The Novice,” Hadaway lets her camera linger on the boat and the oar as love songs play, creating a commercial in which she is perhaps selling her own love of the sport.

Unlike ballet or music, however, college rowing is a collective team undertaking, not an individual indulgence. And for that reason, it is often difficult to connect with Alex. She comes across as highly irrational — and perhaps that’s the point. After all, in the film, her own girlfriend Dani (Dilone) is unable to get Alex to realize the harm she is doing to herself. Somehow, unwarranted bleeding fails to register as problematic to Alex.

Relating to Alex will be a challenge for many viewers, but not because of Fuhrman’s performance. She turns in a highly believable one. But as the film’s title suggests, Hadaway is herself a novice writer and filmmaker, and perhaps that’s why it’s hard to sustain a personal connection to Alex. What’s absolutely clear is Hadaway’s stunning eye and control of the camera. Her direction is not just steady but highly evocative, and the cinematography from Todd Martin, making his feature debut after shooting dozens of shorts and music videos, is just breathtaking. What a wonderful debut from them both.

Whether viewers or not viewers take to “The Novice,” it’s a film that makes its mark as a promise of what’s ahead from Hadaway, a filmmaker to watch.

“The Novice” opens in US theaters and on demand Dec. 17.