Monday 21 March 2022

The Novice (Lauren Hadaway, 2021)

Lauren Hadaway's compelling debut feature The Novice, which plays at this year's BFI Flare on March 21 and 23, is a highly assured psychological drama, one that examines the sporting obsession of a young student.  In a way, the film is the antithesis of current cinema release The Phantom of the Open, a crowd-pleasing comedy based on the true story of likeable chancer Maurice Flitcroft, a man who'd never played golf yet somehow managed to blag his way into the prestigious British Open.  Before the tournament, Phantom's protagonist made a few half-hearted attempts to get to grips with the sport, with his weak and minimal efforts standing in stark contrast to the blood and sweat spilled by The Novice's Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is focused on the relatively low-stakes prize of a place on the university rowing team.  On the basis of Dall's gruelling routine as evidenced here, one shudders to think of the lengths she might go to if she had rowing's equivalent of the Open in her sights.    

Dall is an unsmiling freshman who works incredibly hard in class; on more than one occasion, we see her toiling away in an empty lecture theatre long after her fellow students and TA have called it a day.  Yet these academic endeavours pale in comparison with Alex's monomaniacal focus once she signs up for the rowing team, seemingly on a whim—as with The Phantom of the Open's hapless Flitcroft, Dall has no experience of the sport she's signed up for.  As the novice of the title, Alex is treated with disdain by the established members of the varsity team, although this does nothing to discourage the new girl, who barely seems to notice the stream of barbs and digs sent in her direction.  Rising at an ungodly hour to take to the rowing machine and/or water, Dall pushes herself so hard that her two coaches (Kate Drummond, Jonathan Cherry), who are so used to squeezing every last drop of effort from their charges, implore her to take it down a notch or three.

As Alex's efforts intensify, so does the viewer's feeling of unease; The Novice may begin like so many American college movies, but a real sense of foreboding gradually creeps in, and we begin to dread the ritual of Alex unlocking the gloomy boathouse, which occurs in an eerie early morning half-light in which a Lynchian jump scare seems not only feasible, but probable.  Although by no means an example of body horror, the film only grows more visceral as Dall's once merely sweat-drenched skin acquires raw, painful-looking blisters; there's also a fairly graphic scene in which Alex engages in self-harm.  Given that Dall tackles rowing with an almost religious fervour, it's hard to shake the idea that she's a flagellant, not unlike the one seen in another recent psychological thriller—which was also a debut feature—Rose Glass' outstanding Saint Maud.  Furthermore, Alex's seemingly arbitrary decision to take up rowing could be viewed as her answering a calling, of sorts.

While her raison d'être is to reach the pinnacle of the sport, Dall appears to gain no pleasure from her punishing training regime, and she seems to exist in a vacuum where the act of rowing is performed purely for its own sake; the other members of the team may as well not exist, and the real world, for the most part, melts away.  The Novice would make a good, if rather intense, double bill with The Perfect David—another title on offer at this year's Flare—in which a teenage bodybuilder goes to inordinate lengths in order to achieve what he deems to be the ideal physique.  Both films recall Gerard Johnson's excellent, unnerving Muscle, which also begins in a very real and recognisable world, only for the quotidian to take a back seat as a full-bore nightmare swirls around its protagonist.  Fuhrman, previously best known for playing the title character in the 2009 horror Orphan, gives a truly committed performance as the obsessed Alex, and director Hadaway ensures that the rest of the film complements this troubling, riveting turn.   

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI