When I was in grammar school one of the metrics by which teachers assessed students’ performance was something labelled “self-directedness.” Given that I went to grammar school in the States, one is not surprised by the existence of such an ideological metric. Given the US’s hypercompetitive and individualist makeup, the system demands children and adults who are not just externally motivated but also internally motivated. The internal coach—reprimanding ourselves for our shortcomings and laziness and acting as a sort of secular conscience—is more demanding than the external coach. The Novice presents us with a first-year college student, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), who takes self-directedness to a whole new level.
Alex is fury and intensity incarnate. Her grades in high school were immaculate. In college she strives for a perfect grade point average. One day she tries out as a novice for the college’s rowing team. If she performs better than all the other novices who try out, she may earn a spot in the college’s top-tier varsity team. That is enough fuel for her competitive engine. In rowing, Alex has found her calling. She internalizes the coach’s (Jonathan Cherry) instructions and repeats them to herself like a mantra. She identifies times she needs to beat. She even finds the catalyst most capable of fueling her drive—her friend Jamie (Amy Forsyth). Jamie is also trying to secure a spot on the varsity team as a novice. She becomes the perfect adversary for Alex. Not that Jamie is not competitive in her own way. For Jamie, getting a spot on the varsity rowing team means a scholarship. Alex is fueled by Jamie and Jamie is fueled by an American education system based on high tuitions and scarce funding sources for students.
Director Lauren Hadaway does a magnificent job translating abstract concepts such as intensity and drive into concrete visual language. Hadaway’s camera fixates on Alex’s body, her limbs, as she pushes them to the point of burnout. It seems that in every other scene, Alex is either bathed in sweat or dealing with the blisters that have developed in her hands from the paddles. Hadaway also does a great job in giving the viewer just enough, and never too much, background information on Alex. We do not completely know why she is so overly competitive. We do get a story about a high school boy upsetting her and motivating her to be the best in her class, but that is about it. By allowing for a certain amount of grayness and ambiguity as to the source of Alex’s competitiveness, Hadaway gives the impression that Alex’s psychopathological intensity may just be the product of the society and ideology around her.
As I watched The Novice, there were some nagging criticisms that would just not let go of me. The first involves the similarities between The Novice and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. While there are worse things than your movie reminding viewers of Chazelle and Whiplash, the similarities both in terms of thematics and visuals are a little too much. One begins suspecting that Hadaway is following the path already forged by Chazelle—one that certainly proved successful–and using The Novice as a first step in her journey toward more mainstream audiences and bigger studio budgets in the future.
The second criticism involves Hadaway’s overuse of hyper-cynical dialogue in conveying the point that all that matters to these characters is overcoming their competitors, and any human emotion or interaction that falls outside the bounds of that, is deserving of cynicism. After a while, we get it: all that matters to Alex is winning. But, in spite of its flaws, if indeed The Novice is Hadaway’s attempt at introducing herself as a directorial voice, and a first step toward bigger things, we need to take notice.
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