Written by Becca Johnson
Treading a fine line between drama and psychological horror, The Novice is an excellent watch that explores obsession, compulsion and how this can blur reality.
The Novice is a directorial debut from Lauren Hadaway, telling the story of a college freshman who joins her university's rowing team and undertakes an obsessive journey to make it to the top, no matter the cost. Isabelle Fuhrman is steadily becoming a household name in the horror genre due to her appearances in Orphan, Escape Room and Cell; her lead performance here is career best. Alex Dall is a character who never settles for anything lower than the top, and pushes herself in everything she commits her time to. We see her character slowly unravel as she takes on more and more, attempts to balances school work with rowing and ultimately tries to best her classmates and make varsity. Fuhrman encapsulates everything needed to make Alex believable, showing the same grit and determination as her character in her performance. Fantastic side performances are also put forward from Amy Forsyth (Coda) who plays classmate and competitor Jamie, and Jonathan Cherry (What If?) who takes the role of Alex's Coach. Movies centered on the sport of rowing are few and far between, making this a unique and fresh watch. Though the sports drama is a well populated sub-genre, The Novice has enough flair to help it stand out. It doesn't go for the success story of achievement that we're used to; the psychological drama elements bring it up a notch, adding a dark layer of tension and thrills. Due to its plot and nature, it will likely be compared to the likes of Whiplash (2014) and Black Swan (2010) – it perfectly sits between both. It toys with body horror but isn't quite as gory as Black Swan, and takes the dramatic elements of Whiplash and pushes them into thriller territory. It teeters on the edge of horror and doesn't fully commit, which works in the movies favour as it keeps the tone balanced and doesn't feel the need to go crazy in the third act though the pay-off is clear.
The Novice is shot beautifully, utilising bleak cinematography and a claustrophobic feel that helps put us in Alex's shoes. It's dizzying and chaotic in the best way possible, with the dark colour grading pairing perfectly with choppy, fast-paced shots. The frequent use of close-ups and montages are clever in making the movie introspective. Furthermore, the score from Alex Weston (The Farewell) works a treat at creating an immersive watch, as it resembles that of a horror flick and increases tension. Hadaway's direction is stunning, which is particularly admirable given that this is a directorial debut; she proves herself as one to watch, and it's exciting to see what she brings audiences next. The Novice is a tense, fast paced and unique psychological drama that explores its theme of obsession well, diving into the psyche of its lead character with great development. The talent both in front of and behind the camera make this an unmissable watch, with a career best performance from Fuhrman and excellent direction from Hadaway. By the end of the run-time it may seem like this misses its opportunity to pack a punch, but the tension building, immersive cinematography and distinctive story help to create one of the strongest movies of the year thus far.