Rowing to the Top — at Any Cost

Amy Forsyth as Jamie Brill and Isabelle Fuhrman as ‘Alex Dall’ in “The Novice.”
IFC Films

“The Novice” asks when passion crosses the line into self-destruction. Although it’s about a college student devoted to rowing, the title also refers to a person who has entered a religious order. The wounds that develop on Alex Dall’s (Isabelle Fuhrman) hands resemble stigmata. Her coach twice quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that one must devote 10,000 hours to a task in order to excel at it. But what if athletic success comes at the cost of one’s mind and body? Unfortunately, director Lauren Hadaway takes a secondhand approach to the material, even though Dall’s experiences are based on her own time in college. She has said “I was a collegiate rower, and ‘The Novice’ is my catharsis.” Like Dall, Hadaway is queer.

Dall is a first-year student at a small college who suffers from imposter syndrome and feeling undervalued. Coming across the women’s rowing team, she’s fascinated by the painful physicality of their practice and decides to join. Dall and a working-class student, Jamie (Amy Forsyth), rise to become eligible for the varsity team, where they learn that success can net them a scholarship. Jamie and Dall try to maintain a friendship, but the latter struggles to hold her own while Jamie far surpasses her on the team. A less determined woman might give up at this point, but Dall has a breakthrough when she sleeps with her former TA, Dani (Dilone). (She had unpleasurable sex with a fratboy in an early scene.) This experience inspires her to devote herself even further to rowing, but she becomes an ultra-competitive jerk in the process.

Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall.IFC Films

The first half hour of “The Novice” does a decent job of establishing Dall’s state of mind and slowly cranking up the tension. But Hadaway’s style soon becomes ludicrously heavy-handed. It’s not enough for Dall to lock herself in a toilet stall and scream. The film needs to cut between close-ups taken from six different angles, all edited together in the most jarring style. Hadaway’s direction is obviously trying to express the inner anguish of a very troubled person, but the film turns into a one-dimensional stew of misery. Since the rowing team has to get up as early as 4:30 a.m. to practice, “The Novice” mostly takes place in near-darkness. It also seems to be raining much of the time. These visual cues are supposed to speak for Dall’s mindset, but they’ve become prestige TV clichés.

The concept of dancing as a torturous but worthwhile endeavor for women runs through cinema, and it hovers behind “The Novice.” It seems inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” especially in its tight close-ups and abrasive editing. Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is its other main point of reference. “Whiplash” sublimated teacher/student attraction into a flood of homophobic slurs from JK Simmons’ jazz drumming instructor. “Black Swan” includes a lesbian sex scene that may be a dream. “The Novice” is completely matter-of-fact about Dall’s sexuality, which feels like progress.

It takes place in a mostly female environment. Dall’s coach is the one major exception, but the film never blames him for the depths to which she pushes her body. During sex, she fantasizes about rowing. This could be a healthy expression of her passion for the sport, but it comes to reflect her single-minded devotion. For her, succeeding as an athlete means self-harm. “The Novice” is far grimmer than “Whiplash” and “Black Swan,” which come to suggest that there’s a real purpose behind their pain. In the final scene, Dall stares into the camera and dares us to judge her.

If it had a better notion of how to convey her masochistic devotion through style, “The Novice” would be much more potent. As deeply as this story is felt by Hadaway, the direction and editing are so overwrought they flirt with self-parody. The soundtrack features a string quarter sawing away, alternating with ‘60s pop songs used ironically. In one of the film’s more creative moments, one song slows down and becomes distorted, as though it were playing off a warped record. But for the most part, “The Novice” is content with shaky hand-held camera work and quick cuts as signs of passion and anxiety. As much as it attempts to speak about a woman scourging her body to try and get somewhere in life, it never actually arrives at the intensity it aims for.

THE NOVICE | Directed by Lauren Hadaway | IFC Films | Quad Cinema | Opened Dec. 17th