Tribeca Film Festival 2021: The Novice (2021) – Film Review

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The Novice was named Best US Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival but does this tale of obsession out on the open water sink or swim?

Alex Dall is obsessively row, row, rowing her boat fiercly down the stream. Certainly not merrily and life is anything but a dream.

The plot device of someone striving for perfection no matter the cost is nothing new. It could be in the squared circle in The Wrestler or in the ballet studio in Oscar-winner Black Swan. Writer-director Lauren Hadaway puts her central character through the mill on the rowing machine in the quest for glory.

Isabelle Furnham steps up to the plate and deservedly won Best Actress at Tribeca for an incredibly committed performance. Aesthetically, she is now reminiscent of a dark-haired Saoirse Ronan and has the talent to match. There is no challenge she cannot rise to. Whether it is convincing audiences she was a 33 year old woman masquerading as a child in Orphan or pushing herself to her physical limits.

Her ferocity and intensity help to cover up a slightly hazy backstory. It is not entirely clear why she is so hard on herself and why being the best at something is the only option. There are stories about a particular rival classmate at school and hints of issues with her parents but Alex is someone who does her talking out on the water.

Hadaway uses every trick in her arsenal to bring the training scenes to life. A combination of frenetic cinematography, editing, lighting and sound design all work to provide an idea of the brutal pressure Dall puts on herself. Audiences are likely to feel they too have rowen 20K by the time the end credits roll.

The plot might not win awards for originality but Hadaway’s direction and Furnham’s performance ensure The Novice will make Varsity.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Director: Lauren Hadaway
Stars: Isabelle Furhman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry
Runtime: 94 minutes
Country: USA

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