Isabelle Fuhrman give it her all in this intense, no-nonsense thriller
By Sean Blanford
For some, life gets handed to you with all of the ease and comfort that makes it feel like you have accomplished something great without lifting a finger. For others, you have to scratch and claw for any opportunity you get because there may be only one chance to show how great you can be. Then, there’s Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), taking that adage literally with all of the scars she carries with her, both mentally and psychically, obsessing about being the best in absolutely everything she does. She will take tests multiple times to get the best grade possible and put her body on the line to rise the ranks from a novice to a varsity rower. In her directorial debut, noted sound editor Lauren Hadaway (whose recent credits include Justice League, Warcraft, and The Conjuring 2) throws everything at the screen with a controlled abandon, leaving us as the audience without a moment of relent in The Novice’s 94-minute runtime.
We first meet Alex in the classroom, being the last one leaving class after taking an exam for the third time. She isn’t doing this because it’s required of her, not even because she wants to, but because she feels she has to. She wants to challenge herself, which leads to her and friend-turned-rival Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth) joining the college’s novice rowing team. It starts with learning proper rowing techniques and Alex obsessively writing notes in her journal about it, talking these techniques to herself over and over again, ignoring the physical toll it is putting on her body. When her hard work begins to pay off, she and Jamie earn the right to join the varsity squad, which leads to early morning practices, hazing from their teammates, which causes Alex to spiral further down the hole of this new challenge. Even when the film ends and we feel like we are given a definitive conclusion to Alex’s story, that may not be as conclusive as we may think.
Hinging on a breathtaking performance from star Isabelle Fuhrman, she steals every single scene she is in. It toes a fine line between wanting her to succeed and yelling at the screen to tell her to slow down, as we know the harm that this is doing to her even though she clearly doesn’t recognize it. It shows how much Fuhrman wanted to give it her all in the performance as Dall, undergoing an intense training regimen for this role. You can tell that Hadaway, who also wrote the screenplay and co-edited the film, has a history in sound design because the sound and cinematography from Todd Martin play a crucial role in creating this intense atmosphere as Furhman’s performance does.
It is easy to connect Furhman as Dall and her role as Esther in Orphan and the highly anticipated Orphan First Kill because both allow her to play sympathetic and chilling at the same time. She is a star on the rise, and it is because of her and the work of Lauren Hadaway that makes The Novice one of the best films from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
GRADE: 4.5/5 (A)