Perhaps all you need to know about Alex Dall is this: physics is her worst subject, and yet she is a physics major. While the origins of Alex’s wild bids for academic excellence will eventually be explained away in Lauren Hadaway’s tense, often electrifying feature debut “The Novice,” the first-time director opts to plunge both her audience and her film into Alex’s frenetic world almost immediately, only much later pausing for some necessary breaths. Star Isabelle Fuhrman is game to ride Hadaway’s jittery wavelength, turning in an incendiary performance that, before the opening credits have even concluded, seems like a major step forward for the former “Orphan” star.
Alex is in her first year at college, and despite being armed with a full-ride scholarship, complacency is the last thing on her mind. She works the hardest, but she’s not necessarily the best — a distinction she always wants to make clear, often to her own psychological detriment. She’s an unhinged test-taker, doubling and sometimes even tripling back on her work before turning it in. “You finished first, why’d you take it twice?” her baffled TA Dani (Dilone) yells after her early in the semester. She takes it twice to make sure it’s right, because for someone like Alex, there is nothing beyond her hard-won accomplishments. Nothing.
Now, it seems, she needs a new challenge. Rowing seems to be something of an incidental choice; it’s there, so Alex wants to make it her own. The rest of her fellow novice rowing team aren’t nearly as driven: some of them are there for fun, others for exercise, and only Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth) appears to be gunning just as hard as Alex for a possible spot on the varsity team. Jamie is a natural leader, at ease in ways Alex could never even attempt to imitate, but their growing bond as they rise up through the rowing ranks — one seething with competition as much as affection — adds a rich dimension to a film already bursting with secrets and subtext.
Half-measures aren’t at all part of Alex’s lexicon, and as she throws herself into rowing, so too does Fuhrman into a meaty, staggeringly tense role. (A few elements that won’t surprise anyone: Hadaway based the film on her own college rowing experiences, while Fuhrman reportedly gained 10 pounds of pure muscle for the role.) But she’s acting mostly on her own, and everyone in Alex’s life is telling her to slow down: Dani, her roommate and longtime pal Winona (Jeni Ross), even Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry), the kind of dude who says “correct-a-mundo” and “awesome sauce” in casual conversation and realizes, perhaps too late, that won’t go far with Alex.
When Coach Pete tells the novices to picture the full-body workout required of rowing as they practice their technique, his chant of “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” starts to run through Alex’s head, unstopping and unceasing. Other accidental mantras join soon enough, like when she overhears another novice telling Jamie she is “like the best novice” or when Coach Pete tells Jamie she’s “a natural.” No one, it seems, can see her, despite her obvious drive. Alex works out until she pukes, and still Coach Pete struggles to remember her name.
Outside of rowing, Alex limply attempts a more normal college existence, trooping along to parties with bubbly Winona, having a one-night stand just to get it over with, and eventually forming a romance with Dani that serves to humanize Alex in new ways, while also allowing her to deliver plenty of overwrought exposition about why she is the way she is. Nothing is more compelling than her push-pull relationship with Jamie — Fuhrman and Forsyth find the inherent drama in scenes as seemingly throwaway as watching the two top novices wolf down “second breakfast,” one of many tiny interactions between the duo that sting — but Hadaway and her star locate plenty of pathos in the moments that find Alex utterly alone.
As she pushes herself even further, Hadaway and Fuhrman slip Alex into something like delirium: darkness closes around the actress’ figure when her character is pushing herself through punishing workouts, the chants can’t be quieted, and even the raven mascot of the university seems as if it’s taunting her. Eventually, Hadaway reveals more dimensions to Alex’s drive, including a number of sequences centered on activities involving self-harm — from a series of growing cuts on her ribcage to a persistent bruise on her upper thigh, the product of Alex hitting herself when her workouts go wrong and her times don’t improve.
The film’s tense score, from composer Alex Weston, adds to the sense that “The Novice” is more a horror film than anything else, with a series of intriguing, vintage song choices alternately cutting and upping that tension (Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” has scarcely been this off-putting) during some of the film’s more out-there sequences. But it’s Furhman, steadily building Alex from the inside out, even as she’s crumbling around her, that adds the most tension and intensity to the film, offering a fully realized performance in a story all about the pain of realizing how much further you have to go.
“The Novice” premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition section of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.