Right from the opening minutes of The Novice, it’s clear that freshman college student Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman, a.k.a., that creepy-ass kid from Orphan) is all about excelling. We first see her completing an exam in a classroom full of people. She finishes before everyone else, but then goes back to double-check her work. By the time she’s done, the room is empty. She ain’t leaving until she knows she’s got everything right.
The Novice also quickly establishes that there’s something wrong with Alex. After finishing her exam, she sprints over to a building where, deep in the bowels, a novice training program for boat racers is in session. Being a first-class rower is very important to Alex. She will spend most of the movie pushing her body and mind to extremes in pursuit of that goal. She works on an indoor ergonomic rowing machine (or the “erg”) to the point where some bodily fluid—sweat, vomit, urine—comes spewing out. She constantly makes notes and has the rowing instructions of her cool-guy coach (Jonathan Cherry) playing on a loop in her head. She’s also found a rival in a more talented novice (Amy Forsyth) who has no clue her teammate is gunning for her. Even though she just started the program, Alex is angling to be the best rower on campus.
Of course, Novice is semi-autobiographical. Using her traumatic college years as a rower for inspiration, writer-director Lauren Hadaway chronicles a year in the life of a young go-getter who’s constantly striving towards excellence, no matter the damage to her body and psyche. If this sounds like a collegiate Black Swan to you, it’s no coincidence: That’s one of Hadaway’s favorite movies.
The filmmaker, who also co-edited The Novice, depicts Alex’s freshman year in quick-cutting, frenetic, anxiety-ridden fashion, with composer Alex Weston’s string-heavy score properly ratcheting up the tension and Fuhrman gamely acting like a harried but dedicated ball of nerves. (There are scenes where she practices her rowing skills in the water, practically the closest she gets to achieving any sort of peace.) While no one says it, it’s obvious to everyone around her (and to the audience) that Alex is disturbed—a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet her psychological issues are never fully vocalized. We never really know why she works herself so damn hard. Alex tells her teacher-assistant girlfriend, played by on-the-rise model Dilone, about studying to show up some know-it-all bro back in high school, but we later learn this may not even be a true story. The ambiguity of her motives will probably frustrate viewers expecting some explanation for her mad drive.
The Novice, which got nominated for five Indie Spirit awards, has been widely described as a psychological thriller. But it’s more of an in-your-face cautionary tale for young, ambitious college students who may be working themselves a little too hard at university. The lesson is plain: If you don’t slow down and chill out, you might turn out like this gal.