Bentonville Film Festival Film Review: The Novice

Year: 2021
Duration: 94 minutes
Directed by: Lauren Hadaway
Written by: Lauren Hadaway
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry

As conversations around mental health in sports continue to grow, writer/director Lauren Hadaway creates a compelling take on unhealthy obsession with her feature directorial debut, “The Novice” (2021).

We’ve seen plenty of struggling, obsessive artist stories in the past, like “Black Swan” (2010) and “Whiplash” (2014), that depict the determination and drive of artists looking to rise to the top even if it means losing themselves along the way. However, it’s strange that there aren’t many sports equivalents, or at least any that come to mind, given that the same kind of obsessive struggle can easily be found there as well. There are plenty of technical elements to pretty much any sport that intertwine with the competitive atmosphere and, at times, grueling workout regime that can create the perfect setting for someone to take their craft too far. Hadaway certainly makes a good case for it through Alex Dahl (Isabelle Fuhrman), a novice rower at her college’s program that aims her obsessive behavior at becoming her team’s strongest rower, no matter what the cost.

Hadaway centers everything around Dahl’s obsessive behavior perfectly creating this psychologically thrilling experience that immediately gets your pulse racing. Every time she’s on a rowing machine or out on the water, you can’t help but tense up and become uneasy because she’s constantly pushing her body to its limit to the point where reality becomes hazy. The music choices and atmospheric instances of Dahl’s mind being strained as her workouts intensify works incredibly well in emphasizing her efforts going too far. She’s even shown to be repeating phrases and technical terms over in her head that eventually take on new hallucinatory forms and there’s something chilling about how her mumblings carry from scene to scene. Dahl’s obsessive behavior even comes though when she’s not on the water as stories about her past high school behavior and current efforts in the classroom make it more apparent that this compulsion consumes her in every instance of her life.

Pretty much the entire way through, it really feels like Dahl is the one in control of pacing as it never lets off the gas making it fast-paced thrill ride that carries this foreboding danger and worry throughout – especially with Fuhrman delivering such a committed and captivating performance. Just from looking at her face, Fuhrman shows how Dahl is in constant thought and pouring every ounce of her energy and time into improving her craft. It’s hard to even imagine the training and mindset building that Fuhrman had to go through for “The Novice”, but it really comes through to deliver a pulse-pounding nail biter performance that leaves you on edge with how far Dahl will go to be the best. It’s also worth noting that Amy Forsyth has a very strong performance as well with her blunt delivery and equally determined mindset as Jamie. Jamie is the perfect kind of rival for Dahl to elevate her obsession for and Forsyth is superb in being driven to be the best.

“The Novice’s” greatest strengths are in its story as it slowly delves into Dahl’s rapidly growing obsession and creates some thought-provoking threads connecting to mental health in sports. Although people like Dahl and Jamie would be easily labeled as “crazy” or “ambitious,” which they are in the film by others for their drive with rowing, their motivations are fleshed out well to create these deeper character arcs. Jamie is in search of a scholarship to help her get through school and is solely focused on getting there as quick as she possibly can. Her story eventually showcases the social politics of team sports that flesh out her individualistic mentality that goes against the hard work that Dahl stands by – maybe a little too much.

There’s no doubt that the eventual betraying turn that Jamie has with Dahl cuts deep with the impact it has on Dahl going even harder, but Dahl’s unflinching determination isn’t painted in this glorious light. It’s actually shown to be quite destructive as she tries to ignore injuries that cause her harm the more she persists and becomes so ingrained into rowing that other parts of her life begin to fade out of existence. The spark of her obsession is an interesting aspect of her character as it likely stems from her own desires to be noticed and frustrations with those who get by without putting in the work. It’s an admirable reason only made more sympathetic with how Hadaway shows Dahl being seen as invisible to most people and it makes seeing Dahl start to lose herself really impactful. There’s something really compelling about Hadaway making Dahl’s arc a realization that obsessively working hard won’t always get you to where you want to be and for it not always being best to push yourself past your comfort level for the sake of recognition.

This is what makes “The Novice” such a timely and thematic narrative perfect for the growing conversations around mental health in sports. It showcases this dark, determined drive that’s well-intentioned, but ultimately leads to ruin. It recognizes moments where people, mainly coaches, teammates, and friends, could’ve intervened more to at least talk about her obsessive behavior rather than fueling it. There are plenty of warning signs that show Dahl isn’t in the right mindset and with no one really trying to pull her off, she continually pushes herself to a dangerous and scary finale that’s only made satisfying and calming through her destructive efforts coming to an end – which is something that doesn’t feel good to say or see.

“The Novice” is a timely cautionary tale of athleticism being pushed too far and makes for an absolutely thrilling debut from Hadaway that combines greats performances and filmmaking for a truly captivating experience.

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