HTBS Film Review: The Novice

Graphic: IFC Films

13 April 2022

By Hugh Matheson

Hugh Matheson competed in three Olympic Games, finishing in 6th place in the single sculls in Moscow in 1980. He is impressed by the recent award-winning film The Novice by writer/director Lauren Hadaway. Spoiler alert: Hugh gives away the ending in his last three paragraphs.

How many times have you seen someone roll on the floor and piss themselves after a 2K ergo test? Your answer doesn’t matter. The scene, in the newly released movie The Novice, is making the point that, when you start rowing as a sport, you had better get a lot tougher, quite quickly, or it’ll be time to quit.

Alex Dall raced hard, right though the course and to the last metre, by the actress Isabelle Fuhrman, is a freshman at Wellington, a small U.S. East Coast university, which plays its sport in the NCAA, below the Ivy League. She is quickly identified as obsessively determined in everything she does. She is an academic star and we soon learn she is majoring in her weakest subject, because she “needs the challenge” and needing, equally, a physical challenge leads her, guess where? The boathouse.

Isabelle Fuhrman on location in Peterborough, Ontario. Picture: IFC Films.

This boathouse has a charming Cerberus, Coach Pete, played by Jonathan Cherry, guarding its ergometer room, which is set, plausibly, in a concrete dungeon. Alex joins the novice squad and soon finds that the rival for promotion to the varsity squad, Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth), has a “need” to be chosen to win the scholarship which will allow her to stay at the private college and avoid having to transfer to a state university. Crew lists and other notices use their surnames, but mostly they are barked at as “Novice” “come here” and “do that”.

“Alex Dall” in the ergo dungeon. Picture: IFC Films.

Day 1 begins with an erg session followed by an introduction to the water in fours. Fuhrman convinces from the first stroke as someone who has not touched a blade handle before, and we watch her learn from scratch. The camera, which has a gloom filter on throughout, follows her bruises, blisters and sweat with the same directness we see her apply to the new sport. Within five minutes of the opening credits rowers in the theatre know they are in the movie of someone who has lived the sport for real. But, as the story develops, the parallel theme is the examination of how a driven character uses rowing, or rather the training for rowing, as a medium to exercise her obsessiveness. The viewer who has backstory in rowing and knows some of the characters who inhabit it, will not be surprised by anything that happens thereafter.

Rowing – not all fun. Alex/Isabelle at “6”. Picture: IFC Films.

Alex gets stronger and more skilful quickly, although she is thrust into a varsity crew race improbably soon. She and Brill are the two with ambition, who leave the rest behind and climb the sculling ladder in lockstep.

Alex chooses to stay and train over the Christmas vacation only after she has been to a grimly realistic Frat House party when she gets rite of passage drunk to find the courage to screw some dismal youth. I hope Fuhrman was acting, not remembering, when her face records her disappointment in the boy with the spotty back.

Gloom filter on. Picture: IFC Films.

She persuades Coach Pete to open up the boathouse each morning and after implausibly many swampings, she begins to scull with pleasure. Because its winter and north of latitude 40, she goes out in the dark and because it suits the movie, it’s always raining but then, one dawn, we see her blades clear the water at the finish and she slides smoothly to the catch and picks up the work like a pro. Soon after, first light suffuses the river and the mist drifts across the water while Alex sits at ease in her single and for the first time is at peace with her world.

Then, it is a love story and the authenticity of all the training scenes makes it every rower’s love story. Q: Why do I do this and go on doing it? A: For moments like that and for times when the rhythm overcomes every infelicity of style and takes over your soul.

Alex at peace. Picture: IFC Films.

Meanwhile she has some academic work to do and majoring in her worst subject, that means catching up. The next contrivance is a good-looking teaching assistant who helps her make the grades and hold onto her own Presidential scholarship. Now the audience knows she doesn’t actually need to win the promotion to the Varsity, which is Jamie Brill’s sole reason for training equally hard. But it doesn’t stop Alex Dall wanting to be number One.

How can the coaches separate them? When the words “seat racing” were first uttered, the theatre filled with mutters of “what’s that?”. But this reviewer sat back, confident that he knew how it would turn out. He was right.

Brill does a deal with the six varsity women not being seat raced and lo and behold she wins and Dall loses. The Ivy League Americans, who put their reputations on the seat races in the Oxford Boat Race Mutiny of 1986, later filmed as True Blue (1996; Am. title Miracle at Oxford), swore blind that nobody ever skewed a seat race in the history of rowing. Lauren Hadaway, who wrote, directed and edited this movie, knows better.

Writer/director Lauren Hadaway. Picture: IFC Films.

Fuhrman conveys the frustration and fury of someone who has been shafted, unfairly, by a rival and is bent on vengeance. The Spring Semester comes round and she finds that the handsome teaching assistant is tender and curious. They begin an affair, which is used to contrast the harshness of her chosen attitude to rowing with moments of sweet togetherness.

The climax of winter training at Wellington is, by tradition, a long-distance sculling race with a best time ever of 40 minutes. In the manner of all the deceitful coaches ever born, the boss, Coach Edwards, says it is not a race and there is no bonus for recording a good time. Dall knows this is bollocks. The chosen day is wet, and the scullers are warned that, while they can row through the rain, they must come in if lightning strikes.

Ready to race. Picture: IFC Films.

The start is given when the scullers are not properly aligned, possibly because of the conditions, but it’s not a race is it, so it doesn’t matter. The scullers are filmed straining and clashing. Blades crack into riggers and the rough and tumble of unsupervised dogs and cats fighting takes over.

Dall seems to be trailing when the lightning first cracks overhead and the gloomy river is momentarily lit with scullers scattered across it. She ploughs on as others make their way to the bank and the boathouse. At the height of the storm she falls in and then gets back into her boat out in the middle of the river. Hysterically difficult at any time, it would be impossible in those conditions. The next major lightning strike reveals an empty river and soon after Dall reaches the finish buoy and stops her watch. She has done it, and no one was there to record it or witness her grit.

Her return to the boathouse is cathartic, as are so many moments in the film. The coaches and rowers are gathered bedraggled in the changing room with the names in a stack on the greenboard. None has a time marked up for this race. The entire squad is looking at her as an alien. She is known to be safe when they thought she was drowned, but their anger at her disregard for the rules and their sensibilities overrides any relief.

They, and she, know she is different, never to be one of them. She has gone too far and her compulsion to be first has destroyed any chance of belonging. It is a brilliant end to a thoroughly convincing film, because it uses rowing to demonstrate this narrow and precise form of insanity. The sport and the madness fit together – perfectly. Whew!

Graphic: IFC Films. The trailer is on YouTube.

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