IFC Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lauren Hadaway
Screenwriter: Lauren Hadaway
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/16/21
Opens: December 17, 2021

Eliphalet Oram Lyte’s 1881 nursery rhyme “Row Row Row Your Boat/ Gently Down the Stream/ Merrily Merrily Merrily Merrily, Life is But a Dream” could have been used in the soundtrack for irony. It would draw a laugh from the audience because the principal character in Lauren Hadaway’s fierce drama is never merry. She would row row row, but “gently” would be as far removed from her athletic style as New York City is from Perth, Australia.

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 movie “Whiplash” is probably the closest you’d come for comparison, about a jazz drummer who seeks perfection to an obsessive degree, whipped on by his sadistic coach. In “The Novice,” Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) is far removed from Chazelle’s Terence Fletcher, but consider Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) as Fletcher’s soul buddy.

“The Novice” is not really about rowing. The few races shown on cinematographer Todd Martin’s lenses are mundane and filmed at too great a distance to allow us to see and root for a team, nor do we watch any competitions with other colleges. Rowing is used the same way that baseball, basketball, lacrosse and tiddle-dee-links could serve as metaphor to illustrate character. And what a character comes across in Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance!

Dall is a perfectionist, an obsessive, even borderline psychotic, which did not prevent her from earning a high intellectual competition that would give her a free tuition scholarship at her (fictional) university. She is masochistic enough to major in physics, the subject in which she could rise about the grade of C only with the most intense concentration. She is hard on herself, though we do not see enough of her history to know why. She is the type of person who would cut herself, which she actually does in the shower, and she practices rowing to such an extent that her hands are bloodied, turning the huge oar red.

She is not shy. She can go right up to the young women in the cafeteria or while about to enter a boisterous party, but watch from her in a hookup with a fellow, and compare her emotions to those seen in her lesbian relationship with Dani (Dilone), the assistant who teaches physics sections. You can tell that she has found the person who make her relax. Not. She would rebel when anyone tells her to relax or to calm down. (I would too, for that matter.) Even when taking her physics quiz, she reads questions with lips open. She is always in motion.

Because of her obsession and largely because she does not need the rowing team for a scholarship the way most of the other women do, she is disliked by everyone except Jamie (Amy Forsyth). She would never say, “Hey, guys, gimme a break!” By the end of the film we wonder whether she will be the healthiest person on campus from all that sweat or the victim of a heart attack or stroke at the age of 19.

Some would say that “The Novice” is not so much about sports or coming of age as it is a horror film. After all we have a woman who slashes herself, who is relentless, who has made enemies all around. In a typical Hollywood movie she would win the race for her teammates, then go on spring break to relax. Lauren Hadaway does not give us a chance to feel good for her victim. Dall is both a winner and a loser, recalling the line in James Shirley’s poem “See where the victor victim bleeds.” Watch the scores of organizations that give year-end awards and count the number of times they would give a best actress citation to Isabelle Fuhrman.

94 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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