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The Novice: a dizzying sensory experience

A queer story takes place in an intense, obsessive atmosphere. D. M. Palmer reviews The Novice, screening at the Showroom until Thursday. 

The Novice Review 1

Lauren Hadaway is not afraid of a challenge. She gave up a successful career in sound editing and ADR – working on everything from The Hateful Eight (2015) to Justice League (2017) – to take a punt on her debut feature. The Novice draws on Hadaway’s own experience as a collegiate rower to tell the story of Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a perfectionist physics major who decides to join the rowing program. Alex’s interest quickly develops into obsession, as she strives to meet the physical demands and master the intricacies of the sport.

As one would expect from someone of Hadaway’s pedigree, The Novice is a minor technical marvel. Detailed, overlapping sound design combines with Todd Martin’s cinematography to create a mood of intense absorption; The Novice’s sparsely lit, overcast ambience maps the duality between internal and external terrains. The stylistic elements are calibrated to maximal efficiency – dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace; focus is used to show how Alex’s surroundings recede into the murk of her obsession; while Hadaway and Nathan Nugent’s editing is constructed to engender a sense of Alex’s breathless impatience.

Comparisons have been made to Black Swan (2010) and Whiplash (2014) – on which Hadaway worked as a sound editor – but Alex Dall is perhaps most analogous to Daniel Planview in There Will Be Blood (2007). Like Plainview, Alex is a ruthless outsider who jettisons anything that is extraneous to her goals. Fuhrman brings Alex’s toxic ambition to life with a taut, steely-eyed performance which speaks to the character’s unremitting vigilance, and teeters on the edge of mania as Alex matches the natural ability of her rivals with pure drive. The Novice is a dizzying sensory experience, drawing us into Alex’s relentless rhythms.

A refreshing aspect of The Novice is the fact that it is a queer story which doesn’t use sexuality as a lesson or a struggle. Indeed, it could be said that a love triangle right out of J.G. Ballard unfolds between Alex, her TA, Dani (Dolange), and the boat. The Novice is a character study as much as a sports drama, but it could equally fit within the psychological horror canon. Alex undergoes a transformation, she becomes a monster of her own creation, her aspiration feeds on her body, and she traverses a brutalist underworld of self-recrimination.

The real triumph of The Novice is its balance between intimacy and distance. Hadaway places us in an uneasy space but withholds something crucial, and creates a genuine sense of anxiety. The claustrophobia and paranoia are palpable but, unlike Whiplash, the film’s antagonist is within, an internal bully who berates every shortcoming. In the clarity of its beautiful yet tumultuous vision, The Novice feels like a major artist announcing their emergence.

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The Novice is screening at the Showroom until Thursday 7th April.

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