The word “novice” has several definitions, each referring to some sort of beginner—all of whom face a sort of implicit resentment. Novice aren’t just newcomers, after all. They’re considered interlopers who must justify their hubris and prove they belong through a series of tests and trials. The novice racehorse, for example, may win every hurdle or steeplechase right out of the gate, but it’s still considered a novice until the end of its first season, no matter how many victories it achieves along the way. Novices in a religious order, such as Catholicism, must submit to years of rigorous testing, scrutiny, and seclusion, and still they may be dismissed as unworthy. 

The title of The Novice, writer-director Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature, which hits theaters Friday, refers to the first-year members of a university’s women’s rowing team, who sign up to learn the ins and outs of boat racing, but who will spend most of their time building up their stamina on an indoor ergonomic rowing machine—“the erg.” Their sport can be grueling, sure, but it’s not meant to be brutal. In fact, the team’s surfer-cool Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) keeps things light, urging his young charges not to worry about their stats and to just focus on mastering the basics so they won’t hurt themselves. And maybe they should even try to have some fun. 

But Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) isn’t here to have fun. And she’s definitely not here to make friends. She’s out to prove that she belongs, primarily to herself. Dall is the kind of person who majors in physics not despite the fact that it’s her worst subject, but because of it. She takes and retakes her quizzes multiple times, hounded by every potential mistake. Then she runs at breakneck speed from the classroom to her team’s bunkerlike training room, where she straps into the erg and pushes herself until she collapses, puking in a trash can. Whenever Dall catches her reflection in the gym’s mirror, which hangs over a sign reading, “Remember Your Competition,” she glares at her sweaty, sullen face with a determination that commingles with loathing. Very quickly, Dall’s training spirals into compulsion, and then into masochistic self-harm.

Hadaway, a Red Oak native, based The Novice on her own time spent rowing at Southern Methodist University, an experience that Hadaway has called “a traumatic and very obsessive four years.” She’s certainly not out to win any new recruits with her film. The Novice—which took home best picture, best actress, and best cinematography awards in the U.S. narrative feature category at the 2021 Tribeca Festival—is the sinister inverse of the all-American sports movie, chronicling an athlete’s quest for perfection that’s less inspiring than it is terrifying. Hadaway herself has likened it to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, two films whose protagonists similarly sweat, bleed, and psychologically unravel in their pursuit of being the very best. But those movies were ultimately about passion. The Novice treats Dall’s single-minded drive as a sickness. 

The Novice director, Lauren Hadaway
Director Lauren Hadaway on set. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

It’s unclear what Dall hopes to get out of rowing, exactly, or even whether she likes the sport. She remains unknowable beyond her obsessions—to both her peers and the audience. Hadaway has said that she’s not interested in exploring why Dall does what she does. She has described The Novice as an “existentialist anthem” about the kind of person, like Hadaway herself, who challenges herself as a way of creating meaning in a meaningless world. The film reinforces that tunnel-vision perspective by shrouding Dall in chiaroscuro shadows as she toils away, everything else disappearing into the darkness that surrounds her. The other members of Dall’s team become marginal blurs, their voices just faraway echoes as Dall sinks ever further inside herself. Hadaway is an accomplished sound editor who’s worked on movies like Justice League and, yes, Whiplash, and she deftly wields that underappreciated tool to drop us deep inside Dall’s delirious headspace. She also uses Alex Weston’s needling, violin-shredding score and a selection of vintage Connie Francis and Brenda Lee ballads to keep us off-kilter and ratchet up the tension.

Only a few characters manage to break through Dall’s lonely interior din. Among them is Jamie (Amy Forsyth), a stoically confident teammate who shares Dall’s varsity ambitions, which makes her a sort of friend—and, soon, another rival to be conquered. There’s also Dani (played by the fashion model Dilone), a très cool teaching assistant and local musician who briefly promises to give Dall’s life some purpose outside of her constant suffering. Dall and Dani’s scenes together have a liveliness and a lightness that contrasts with the rest of the film, which is so dominated by shots of Dall scurrying through the university’s tunnels or rowing alone in the murky, predawn mist. But Dani’s attempts to connect with Dall are repeatedly rebuffed. “You’ll never understand,” Dall tells her, an attitude that, ultimately, The Novice also takes toward the viewer.

This ambiguity can make The Novice feel slightly frustrating and elusive in its intent. Is it an indictment of college sports—or, more broadly, our modern preoccupation with achievement, which sees young people, especially, pushing themselves to such unhealthy extremes? Or does the film, in its own sick way, celebrate Dall’s tenacity, finding something grimly noble in her commitment to just “keep rowing” against the roiling tide? Hadaway doesn’t tip her hand either way, which some viewers may find a bit alienating. But The Novice is best appreciated as an unsettling character study, one anchored by Fuhrman’s rawboned and restless performance, and captured with Hadaway’s equally intense, remarkably self-assured style. When it comes to filmmaking, Hadaway may also be something of a novice, but after this she has nothing left to prove.