“Remember your competition.” This ominous warning in block capitals looms large in the rowing training room, just below a dusty mirror where the protagonist of the sports drama The Novice fixates upon her reflection.
Queer college freshman and rowing novice Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) inspects her face and body with such stern urgency and ferocity you’d think she could break the mirror with her mind. As the glass stays intact, something far more sinister lurks beneath Alex’s ordinary surface. In between perfunctory sexual encounters and exams, she’s breaking herself by getting caught in the soul-crushing, consuming gears of the college sports machine, keeping a secret that goes way back.
Orphan‘s Isabelle Fuhrman shines in The Novice
Horror icon Fuhrman crumples her heart-shaped, freckled face — the one we’ve come to know in Orphan — into a worn-out grimace to play Alex, pushing herself to the limit once she joins the Ravens, her college’s rowing team.
Measuring herself against other first-timers, it soon becomes clear that Alex isn’t around for the fun. She wants to make it to the varsity top boat, and though The Novice‘s rowing lingo isn’t easy for everyone to grasp and risks alienating some, Furhman’s concerning tenacity has a universal appeal.
A perfectionist, an overachiever who resits for an exam purely to better her marks with no necessity to do so, Alex applies that same obsessive behavior to college rowing. It’s no secret that this is an elitist, punishing environment that pits student-athletes against each other for those very few scholarships available.
Screening at BFI Flare now, this five-time Independent Spirit Award-nominated feature debut from writer and director Lauren Hadaway shows that threats rarely come from within the team. Or from the uncharacteristically sympathetic, supportive coaches (Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond). The Novice is no Whiplash, and Alex doesn’t get the tough love treatment so often reserved for young artists and athletes from their older mentors.
Not to say that rowing doesn’t come with a side of terror. However, the casual bullying and rigorous training at ungodly hours are routine, annoying side effects of a far more pervasive disease. Being the best is a parasite that Alex has let fester and eat at her from the inside, as viewers discover when her seemingly unstoppable body crumbles to reveal its cracks and scars from a lifetime of self-punishment.
The Novice is a symphony of uneasiness
A disturbing atmosphere slowly settles in thanks to the haunting sound design. The water lapping, the birds chirping, the quietness and the unforgiving force of nature at once, the huffing and puffing of Alex’s physical efforts, her shivering in the glacial mornings… the list goes on. This symphony of uneasiness (courtesy of Hadaway, who has worked as a sound engineer on Zack Snyder’s movies) draws from the body at work and the conscience in a state of unrest to illustrate Alex’s very own world, dangerously disconnected from reality and others.
Others who, unlike her, have a life, as her frenemy Jamie (Amy Forsyth) doesn’t fail to point out in a brutal confrontation. During their argument, it’s Alex, shockingly, who comes across as the villain. Her relationship with Jamie has almost a sensual quality to it. It would feel natural to see the protagonist caving to her quiet, unspoken curiosity for her friend, one that she seems to suppress and drown in her obsession. Alex’s queerness isn’t the problem; she’s open about her sexuality and even has a girlfriend, Dani (Dilone). The issue would be giving a name to her mix of attraction and repulsion for someone like Jamie, who is, ultimately, a rival.
Similar to the sound design combining stillness and restlessness, the juxtaposition of the soundtrack — relying on 1960s longing, catchy tunes — creates a jarring contrast with the unsettling score, as if straight from a supernatural horror film.
Catching a crab
After all, there are some inexplicable occurrences throughout The Novice. If they’re a figment of Alex’s imagination or something different, it’s never explained.
The film treads the fine line between sanity and obsession, health and illness, offering a glimpse of this grey area thanks to the frantic editing. Hadaway chooses not to spell Alex’s trauma out, opting for a show and tell approach. The Novice explores the corners of her mind through hard-to-process sequences, symbolism borrowing from the animal kingdom, and body horror imagery, including some extremely graphic self-harm scenes.
The Novice captures bodies glistening with sweat pearls as they morph into feverish hallucinations, less-than-lucid nightmares where Alex can’t escape famished ravens or she painfully relates to crabs being prepared for their steamy death. Catching a crab is rowing jargon for losing control of one’s oar. This might result in head injuries or at its worst throwing the rower overboard. Stuck in her head, the protagonist’s worst fears materialize as she strives to keep control — and not just of her oar.
The final twist hits quietly, making viewers question Alex’s motives, but most crucially leaving them feeling that something terrible might happen eventually, and there’s nothing they could do to stop it. But Alex, and her exhausted moon face and body, couldn’t care less.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.