Following an excess amount of ambition will have you straddle the line between triumph and madness. Athletes often speak of the lengths to which they have to go to achieve great success. It’s the 10,000-hour module. Michael Jordan, who is widely considered being the best basketball player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers, used to invent animosity. It was one thing that gave him that extra push to rising to the next level of competition. That obsessive push to forgo your limits could corrode everything about you. Leak into everything you care about, leaving a burned trail of a life that you once knew.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a college physics student who joins the rowing team. At first, it just seems like another outlet for a very studious person. Her roommate/friend Winona (Jeni Ross) still tries to enjoy the spoils of college life, such as going to parties. Still, Alex finds herself encased in her studies, given that physics was her worst subject. As a person who focuses on prodding the strands of her weaknesses with honed in preciseness, rowing becomes an outlet for this. The team is rather competitive, even if Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) tries to smooth over the atmosphere. Alex quickly becomes captivated by records, times, and a friendly rival named Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth). Brill seems to do amazing things with ease and confidence that gets under Alex’s skin. Thus, there are scenes that show Alex in solitude left to wrestle with an internal struggle of chasing better.
First-time writer/director Lauren Hadaway unveils this story with honesty and exactness that makes these characters feel real. There’s a lot to a title, and The Novice takes on a life of its own. The new members of the team are known as ‘novices’ and a comment by Coach Pete referring to Alex as the best novice becomes a seed within her head. That grows a shroud of obsessive isolation that cinematographer Todd Martin takes full advantage of.
The audience can feel the cold emptiness of the basement that the rowing team gathers in. The frigid and punishing nature of the water that they compete in (and Alex competes with herself). Also, the outdoors becomes increasingly gray and moody, mirroring the cloudiness of Alex’s psyche. Scenes of darkness where Alex is in a void by herself with just the rowing machine occur tied together with Alex Weston’s score. Broad, heavy strokes of orchestration provide a dire atmosphere.
Fuhrman takes on the main character spotlight to a great degree. Hadaway elects to tell The Novice‘s story in sections of months passing. As time goes on, we see Alex become more and more obsessive. It manifests in her appearance, relationships with her queer love interest with TA Dani (Dilone). She pukes, has frequent nosebleeds, and even urinates on herself after punishing workouts. An opening to go home for college winter break allows Alex to get up at the crack of dawn to practice alone. Conversations with Dani even reminisce about times when Alex won something. As time goes on, she becomes an amalgamation of loneliness. And for why? She’s at college on a full scholarship, but she needs something to make it feel like she deserves it. Urges from those around her to take it easy only cause her to push harder.
By the end of The Novice, Alex has little left to give. Does she need to do this? Perhaps, no. Can you understand why she does it? A little. Trying to prove yourself when you feel invisible is something that all humans endure. As the sound design indicates and interactions with others, Alex is rarely seen. She’s background noise. It’s only when she falls apart and even looks to self-harm is when people really see her. At that point, this person has manifested into hungry ambition gone array. Fuhrman and Hadaway work together to bring The Novice as a thrilling, cautionary tale of what wanting to be the best takes from you.