The screenwriter who gave us “Whiplash” makes her splashy (sorry) directing debut with “The Novice,” a movie about an insanely competitive college coed who takes up competitive rowing, where the competition takes over her.
Because if there are two things that Lauren Hadaway knows, it’s youthful obsession and anything that you practice until your hands bleed.
Her film defies easy categorization, a sports movie that immerses us in the sport without really being “about” the sport, with a freshman year same sex romance that isn’t romantic and a heroine who is anything but.
So no “‘Personal Best’ in Boats” headlines, here. This tense tale doesn’t invite us to root for Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman, “Orphan,””The Last Thing Mary Saw,” TV’s “Masters of Sex”) or fear for her health and wellbeing. And that’s kind of the way she wants it.
We meet the twitchy nail-biter as she’s finishing up a test. “You finished first,” her teaching assistant (model turned actress Dilone) complains. “Why’d you take it twice?”
Alex sprints across campus to the “novice rowing” class at Wellington U. She just took a physics class test twice “because it’s my worst subject,” even though it’s her major. She knows nothing of boats, oars and rowing crew. Something else she’s not good at? Welcome to her new obsession.
After hearing how very hard it is for “novices” looking to learn and get some exercise “to move up to varsity,” the die is cast. Alex will be the first at practice and the last to leave. She will skip college breaks. She will row, either on the water or on the rowing machines, until her fingers and hands bleed, until she collapses, once even wetting her pants in front of her teammates from exhaustion.
Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) notices, and is disturbed. “Relax” and “have fun” and “shouldn’t you be stuffed in a library (during exam week) fall on deaf ears.
Because Alex has been told of the long odds. Because there’s been a little hazing from the varsity scholarship rowers. Because a high school jock (Amy Forsyth, a supporting player in “CODA”) is also a novice here, determined to make varsity and score a needed scholarship.
Writer-director Hadaway and her stars create marvelously contrasting characters, the confident, swaggering athlete and the chronic over-achiever determined to do what she always does — outhustle the competition.
Because Alex is all about competition. And as we learn in this quite-clever screenplay, “competition” is just the first sign that Alex’s obsessions go beyond scholarship, physics and applying physics to rowing. She and a fellow student, a friend since high school (Jeni Ross), show up at a fraternity mixer.
“I just wanted to get the drunk college one-night stand out of the way,” Alex confesses.
That teaching assistant Dani? She’s like another “experience” to check off a life list as Miss OCD tallies up all she’s up to her eyeballs in this freshman year.
Hadaway, who also edited “Novice,” serves up montages aplenty — Alex’s notetaking, coach-stalking and “out-working” everybody, this “seat race” (competing for a spot on a varsity boat) or that racing regatta.
Fuhrman’s polished intensity draws us in, even if we’re repelled a bit by this young woman who will not give herself “a break,” at anything.
And Hadaway, as she did with college jazz band drumming in “Whiplash,” immerses us in the jargon, banter and brittle women-being-women-among-other-women dynamic of this collegiate combat among coeds.
It’s enough to make you glad you took up sailing instead.
Rating: R for language, some sexuality and brief disturbing material
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsythe, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummand and Charlotte Ubben
Credits: Scripted and directed by Lauren Hadaway. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:37