' ' Cinema Romantico: The Novice

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

The Novice

After the latest Olympic cheating scandal, in which it sure looks like a bunch of adults made a 15-year-old Russian girl dope, Patrick Hruby noted on Twitter how this was a reminder that “Whiplash” remains the best sports movie. “Whiplash”, of course, was not a sports movie, not really, about a brutish drum teacher (J.K. Simmons) who psychologically abuses his protégé (Miles Teller) to the top. But the bones of that relationship very much mirrored so many of those between coach and athlete. Take “Miracle”, twist it just a couple degrees and that becomes the Nightmare on Ice. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that “Whiplash’s” sound editor Lauren Hadaway makes her directorial debut with “The Novice” about freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) at a prestigious east coast university who joins the rowing team. It’s an inspirational sports drama turned inside-out, essentially taking the blink-and-you-miss-it moment in “The Social Network” when one of the Winklevoss Twins describes his day as three hours of rowing, a full academic course load, and another three hours of rowing and renders not as a droll observation but a full-fledged hell. But rather than a coach extracting greatness from an athlete by any means necessary, “The Novice” is about an athlete cultivating the obsession herself. 

As “The Novice” opens, Alex shows up at her first rowing course out of breath and stressed. That’s because she’s just sprinted across campus from her physics class, staying late to take a test twice to ensure the best possible grade, though Fuhrman plays the part at this maximally stressed level all the time anyway, stabbing vegetables in the cafeteria with a fork in the same exacting manner she fills in a blank on a test or pulls her oars on the water, all augmented in the movie’s piercing sound design, augmenting the sense of someone who can’t do anything halfway. It’s Fuhrman and Hadaway rewriting that old maxim 110% as way too much, a muddy line between inner drive and compulsion. For the most part “The Novice” is content to eschew traditional motivation for Alex’s weird rowing desire or compulsions in general, as if she is just carried along by some breakneck force she can’t quite understand. The closest it comes is a mid-movie monologue to the teaching assistant Dani (Dilone) with whom she develops a romantic relationship, explaining how in high school she tried and tried to academically usurp the aspirant valedictorian. “And then you beat him,” the TA keeps declaring as if sensing the story is about to end, because that’s how these stories always end, with victory, though not here, no, because there’s always one more part to Alex’s story, a pretty funny skewering of the motivational speech drifting into the range of obsession.

It is not just sound design at which “The Novice” excels; its soundtrack is excellent too. Hadaway likes vintage doo wop and pop, like Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry”, which is layered over various training montages of enormous physical exertion and gruesome bodily harm, evoking the sense of Alex’s rowing crow as a kind of love affair gone wrong. For the first rowing competition sequence, Hadaway cues up Andrea Litkei and Ervin Litkei’s “Too Late For Tears”, cutting between shots of Alex beaming at the idyllic scene, autumn leaves and sunshine reflecting off the water through which the oars slice, nothing less than a mockery of the setting’s ostensible romance.

There are some devices on which Hadaway becomes too dependent, like the overcooked metaphor of a crab in boiling water, and more than a few cases of on the nose dialogue, like Alex’s foremost crewmate excoriating her lack of teamwork. Such sentiment is better construed visually, as in how Hadaway mostly forgoes wide shots of beatific rivers with racing boats for jittery close-ups that make it seem as if Alex is alone in the boat, rowing for no one but herself. Her single-minded obsession, of course, brings her to the brink, a predictable ending in theory that “The Novice” elevates by having her row through a thunderstorm. Her teammates express the madness of such an endeavor and whether it’s realistic or not, it puts into focus the tempest of her mind, fully brought to bear in a conclusion that on the surface evinces release….but emblematically evokes nothing less than The End.

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