Lauren Hadaway’s debut directorial, ‘The Novice,’ is a tale of a young woman’s single-minded obsession with achieving excellence in sports rowing. Freshman Alex Dall joins her University’s Wellington College Novice Rowing Program while struggling academically. Her competitive tendencies become obsessive when Jamie Brill, an easy-going freshman, is called the best novice among their batch. Socially alienated, Alex sets out to become the best rower through sheer willpower while pushing her mind and body to the limit.
Although she initially improves and is selected for the varsity team, her mania burns into her and causes several setbacks. Alex is obstinate to be the hardest worker and therefore feels she is the most deserving of success, causing her to clash ideologically with Jamie Brill, whose natural gifts ensure her victory over Alex. The 2021 sports drama explores the lengths individuals can go to in chasing excellence and recognition, to the point of physical and mental breakdown. With its striking portrayals of ambition, obsession, and self-harm, the movie ignites questions regarding the origins of its narrative.
The Novice Explores Lauren Hadaway’s History with Rowing
‘The Novice’ is a work of fiction that is inspired by the writer-director Lauren Hadaway’s own experiences as a collegiate rower. Hadaway spent years addicted to rowing, and this deeply personal connection became a driving force behind the creation of the film. The filmmakers take us into the devolving mental state of Alex, treating us to an intimate relationship forming between her and rowing. The authenticity of the experience is accentuated by Hadaway’s background in sound editing, Isabelle’s commitment to her role, and a rivalry between the contrasting characters of Alex and Jamie.
For writing about Alex’s gradual addiction to rowing, Hadaway tapped into the psychosexual nature of becoming involved with a sport, one that she has experienced herself. “When you improve for yourself, and you can see on a weekly basis how much better you’re getting, it’s incredibly gratifying,” she said. “I think there are very few areas in life like that, where you can see your consistency change on a weekly basis. You get to watch yourself grow. And you get addicted to this feeling of constantly getting better.” Beyond her personal experiences in rowing, Hadaway’s filmmaking journey also played a pivotal role in shaping ‘The Novice.’
Inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ during her adolescence, she initially entered the film industry as a sound designer, contributing to noteworthy projects like ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Justice League.’ This background in sound editing, combined with her unique insights into the film industry, influenced the meticulous attention given to the film’s auditory elements, creating an immersive experience that mirrors the protagonist’s internal struggles. A large part of creating an authentic sports film experience comes down to convincing performances by the actors.
For her part, Isabelle Fuhrman trained considerably for the role of Alex and had applied to it, citing a 60-mile-long leg of a relay race she had completed. Prior to filming, Hadaway lent Isabelle her old ergometer (rowing machine) and coached her on the basics. The actress practiced on the machine for six weeks leading up to the shoot, gaining considerable form in the sport and delivering a compelling performance in front of the camera. “I felt like I had two perpendicular storylines: Alex’s storyline and mine. It’s this obsession with the sport, for Alex. For me, it was an obsession with telling this story,” said Isabelle.
She added, “I rowed the entire movie. I was training for six hours a day, rowing on the water, and then four times a week I would be seeing a trainer.” Psychological sports dramas like ‘The Novice’ often feature a contrast to the protagonist, a rival with a polar opposite personality who seems to make their hard work inconsequential. In this film, we see Alex and Jamie share that dynamic, which is reminiscent of certain rivalries in other sports films. The strongest correlation is between Nina and Lily’s competition in ‘Black Swan.’
While Nina has been coached since childhood to carry out her mother’s unfulfilled dream, Lily is a free soul who takes joy in her performance, adding a wild flair to it. Another example can be seen in ‘Rush,’ with Formula One drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda living their lives outside the racetrack with clashing philosophies. ‘The Novice’ is a story about Alex Dall embodying a relentless drive to be the best rower, a journey that mirrors Hadaway’s own addiction to competitive rowing, serving as a cathartic exploration of her involvement with the sport.
The film not only explores the psychological impact of chasing perfection but also delves into the clash of ideologies between Alex and her rival, which mirrors dynamics observed in popular IPs of the genre. The convincing performances, particularly due to Isabelle Fuhrman’s dedicated training, add authenticity to the sports drama. ‘The Novice’ stands as a compelling exploration of addiction, obsession, and self-destruction within the context of the competitive sporting world, offering a nuanced perspective on the psychological toll of athletic pursuits.
Read More: Where Was The Novice Filmed?