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'The Novice' Review: Lauren Hadaway's moody, intense character drama

'The Novice' - Lauren Hadaway

Success is a drug, there is no doubt about it, and once you’ve had the taste of the top, no amount of silver medals will ever suffice when the glory of gold is in your eyeline. This is a thorny topic that has been explored throughout the history of filmmaking, inextricably tied to American cinema, where to be the best is an expectation and a demand that has been hammered into the national psyche. 

Explored in the Oscar-winning Damien Chazelle film Whiplash, which tells the story of a young man pressured into pushing his mind and body into mastering the drums, personal success is something that cannot be achieved without significant sacrifice. Celebrated for its frenetic soundtrack, Lauren Hadaway, who worked in the sound department for the film, has recently translated her skills over to her own directorial debut in the similarly stressful competitive sports story, The Novice.

Taking place at a gloomy college in Peterborough, Ontario, with impressive outdoor sports facilities, Hadaway’s film follows Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and adopts an obsessive physical and psychological attitude to make it to the top. Despite initial strides of excellence, her fragile mental state, which implodes from the pressure of self-perfection, steers her down the wrong route to success. 

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Doing almost all the hard work at the front of the pack, it is Isabelle Fuhrman’s terrific performance in the lead role that shines through this gritty character study, appearing as a genuine victim of her own perseverance as she mops sweat, blood and mud from her brow. Whilst most will still recognise her as the titular mini monster from the 2009 film The Orphan, Fuhrman has done well to escape this horror persona and carve out her own modern career, often playing troubled, broken characters. 

Helping to impose an urgent tale, Fuhrman’s performance brings to life a fragile character whose sheer curiosity makes the film a gripping watch, unsure of how she might approach a new challenge or indeed internalise her own failings. Though a cold character, Hadaway’s script treats her with sympathy and compassion whilst continuing to demonstrate her shortcomings, providing a balanced view of how the viewer should consider her character. 

In the insanity and obsession of constant competition and self-improvement, Hadaway creates a drama that has few narrative comparisons, gliding through genres with an effortless breeze that helps it stand out in the crowd of independent American cinema.  

It’s this urge to protrude from other competitors that also restricts The Novice, however, with the film feeling like it needs to clutter its image with needlessly flashy cinematography and an overuse of training montages that makes it feel more like a moody music video. The turmoil of the film is, after all, not in the horror of the physical world, but in the gnawing pressure of Dall’s own brittle mind. 

Even still, Hadaway’s directorial debut shows great promise for her future career, with The Novice being a tidy 90-minute character study that doesn’t try too hard to be anything otherwise. A crucial exploration of success that suggests that it is not sheer perseverance that will get you to the top, this is a rousing drama that deals with the aftershock of hubris left in the wake of Donald Trump’s America.

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