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The summer before I started high school I started training.
The other guys were bigger than me, stronger than me, more developed. But I joined the cross country team with experience — I’d already ran three half marathons as a middle schooler. I knew the satisfaction of pushing my body, the hours that went into accomplishing a task that seemed impossible months before its completion.
It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t the best. I wasn’t even top five. And so I trained. If I couldn’t be the best, I could at least work the hardest. Summer practice was optional. You had to show up, but you didn’t have to show up every day. I showed up every day. I was the only freshman to show up every day. I pushed myself harder and harder and harder.
I never ran a cross country race. By the end of the summer, my legs crumbled beneath me. When I finally went to a doctor, he didn’t understand how I was still walking let alone running. I had to use a wheelchair for my first six months of high school and the pain continued through years of physical therapy, through years of finding more traditional ways of self-harm.
Lauren Hadaway’s masterful debut The Novice is about a person a little bit like me. Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a freshman who joins her college rowing team determined to be the best. If you make varsity as a freshman you get a full scholarship. She wants that scholarship.
Alex approaches every task with obsessive determination. Whether its rowing or majoring in physics — her worst subject — she seems to relish in conquering tasks better suited for someone else. The best novice, Jamie (Alex Forsythe), works hard, but not like Alex. She doesn’t have to. And Alex knows that. So Alex pushes and pushes and pushes, working her body past its limit, scribbling down strategy like she can note take her way into athleticism.
At the beginning of the film, Alex’s coach asks all the novices why they decided to join rowing. Alex is interrupted before she has to answer. Hadaway trusts her film, trusts her audience, and most of all trusts her remarkable central performance from Isabelle Fuhrman to not reveal the stakes. We feel them instead. Fuhrman convinces us with every choice that she needs this scholarship. The film communicates more with her performance than a lesser film could with monologues of exposition.
Hadaway captures Alex’s headspace with surreal montages of endurance. Whether Alex is working herself too hard or drinking too much or even mid orgasm, she’s almost never fully conscious. The lush, dark cinematography and frantic editing create a dizzying, all-encompassing effect. It’s something between a horror movie and pornography. Like scratching an itch until it scabs. It’s desire and terror all at once. It’s the dangerous release of self-harm.
Alex sacrifices so much in her pursuit — not just to her body but her life. She begins a flirtation with her TA Dani (Dilone) and for the first time seems to care about something other than school and crew. And how could she not? Dani is hot and in a band and can banter at Alex’s frequency. Dani’s desire to know Alex is our desire to know Alex. Who is she when she’s not taking a physics test over and over again? Who is she when she’s not rowing? As we get deeper into Alex as a person, we wish she would be just that — a person. Work a little less hard and be a little bit more a college freshman with a hot girlfriend. But she can’t. Because these pursuits aren’t a choice — they’re a compulsion.
Ultimately, that’s what my running was about. Hard work, control, pain. It’s a compulsion. It’s athleticism as self-harm. It’s addictive and dangerous and tragic. As Alex’s teammates and coaches, mother and girlfriend, turn on her out of judgement and care, Alex is left confused. She’s working hard. That’s a good thing. How is that not a good thing?
The mirror in the crew workout room has a message below it: “REMEMBER YOUR COMPETITION.” It’s an inspiring platitude about being your own best self. It’s also a warning. For Alex, for me, it’s a reminder that sometimes the person who hurts us the most is us. Lauren Hadaway has made a sports movie, a queer romance, a thriller, and, ultimately, a character study. Once the credits roll, you won’t be able to shake Alex Dall. She can’t even shake herself.
The Novice can be seen in theatres on October 23rd and is available online until October 26th.