Friday, December 17, 2021

Blood, sweat -- but no tears for her


   If you believe that the best and brightest of today's youth have been trained for ruthless competition in a world of diminishing resources, The Novice may have a particular resonance for you. 
   But even if you don't take the movie as a statement about the corrosive effect of competition on young people, you'll find a compelling movie set in an environment unfamiliar to most of us, competitive collegiate rowing.
   Isabelle Fuhrman plays Alex Dall, a freshman at what seems to be a fine university. But simply getting a first-rate education isn't enough for Dall.
   Like a person possessed, she's compelled to fling herself against walls. She's majoring in physics, which she calls her "worst" subject. She joins the rowing team with no prior experience being part of a crew. 
    First-time director Lauren Hadaway makes it clear that Dall refuses to accept limits. It's as if a constant loop spins in her restless mind, "I will not be stopped. I will not be stopped."  
    If Dall lacks a natural gift for something, she'll push through. She'll outwork everyone else. And she'll punish herself when she falls short of her expectations. 
    Along with other young rowers, she works out on rowing machines, soaking herself in sweat as she resists her body's call for mercy.
    Hadaway avoids the cliches that could have toppled the movie. She doesn't vilify Dall's coaches. Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond play the adults who train the team and set standards, but they also see Dall heading toward an edge. 
They know that making the varsity as a freshman seems like everything to Dall but that it's really a sliver of a life still very much in the making.
    Hadaway emphasizes the brutal efforts of Dall's training regimen and also captures the quiet of early-morning sessions of solo rowing. Dall must be at the boathouse at 5:30 a.m. if she wants to practice on her own.
   The Novice mostly focuses on Dall but also shows a relationship Dall begins with her physics teaching assistant (Dilone). Dilone's Dani can't break through Dall's grueling determination. 
    Fuhrman's uncompromising performance leaves you wrung out. Dall's the kid for whom the will to succeed looks like the nightmare of a hopeless obsessive to everyone else. An unwavering expression of  cinematic commitment, The Novice takes us inside Dall's madly driven life and doesn't look away.

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