The Novice [Tribeca21 Review]

Mental health in film has always been showcased in one way. Always with direct correlation that brings it to it being only one way. And yet, mental health is different for everyone. Dealing with your mental health can come in many forms, for me, it often comes with obsessive behaviours. Making a correlation between obsessive behaviours and a hailing mental health isn’t far fetched and yet, films have often decided to simply not try and showcase it.

With her directorial debut, Lauren Hadaway crafts one of the best visual representation of a deteriorating mental health, but also this competitive nature that athletes all suffer from, especially at the collegiate level.

Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a queer college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. Intent on outperforming her teammates, Alex pushes herself to her limits—and beyond, alienating everyone around her in the name of success. 

The highs and lows of mental health are something that I understand far too well. One can be at the top of the world one second and come crashing down within seconds, with no real explanation as to why. The Novice understands that concept, serving us of a montage of Alex finally getting everything together, arriving to class on time, getting stronger and stronger with her rowing, getting noticed by her coach and getting the girl. It’s a montage that could be seen as simply when she finally starts putting everything together, but it can also be interpreted as her mental health being stable and so her life being stable as well.

And that is what this film does so well, the representation of mental health is nuanced and not explicit. It is clear that Alex does suffer from mental health problems, after all, we see her mutilate herself on more then one occasion, but instead of saying it explicitly, the film uses visuals and its narrative to showcase her fall.

The Novice greatest strength lays with its visuals. A good cinematography goes a long way and sometimes it elevates a film even more. This is the perfect example of that, instead of using dialogue or exposition to show us Alex’s spiralling and falling into this obsessive behaviour, Hadaway uses visuals, shots that just brings everything together. It’s telling her story using the perfect medium for it, and never going excessive with it. There could have been too much visuals, we have seen it happen before, but she finds the perfect balance, crafting a film that knows exactly how far to push the enveloppe.

Because so much of the film relies on Alex and her obsession, Isabelle Fuhrman delivers her best performance yet. There’s a nuance that she brings to Alex, a brashness in some aspects of her life while also bringing this insecurity in everything else. It’s nuanced and layered, a performance that showcases the best and worst of wanting to be the best. Because the film is so fast paced, Fuhrman’s performance could have been all over the place and yet, she brings to the film that thing that it needed in order to be incredible.

Cinematography isn’t everything to a film, story also needs to be the driving force of a film. Sure, The Novice might be a little thin at times, but it doesn’t matter because it has such a strong idea of what it wants and need to be, that the film goes straight to the point, never deviating from the story its telling. Hadaway, who also wrote the script, as such a strong voice not only with her script but visually too, that it is a voice that we should all be on the lookout for in the future.

The Novice’s strong visuals paired with a stellar performance from Isabelle Fuhrman creates this film that stays on your mind after the credit starts rolling. Lauren Hadaway’s direction paired with a strong script creates this film that should be on everyone’s radar.