Obsessive excellence and the mystifying reasons why we push ourselves to complete seemingly impossible tasks – these are the bread and butter that make up Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut The Novice. Although not as polished as Aronofsky’s Black Swan or violently eventful as Chazelle’s Whiplash, Hadaway succeeds in taking us down a path of self-inflicted psychological torment and obsessive excellence that is as painful to watch as it is thrilling.
The Novice follows the story of college freshman Alex Dall as she enters the cutthroat world of competitive collegiate rowing in an attempt to win an elite sports scholarship. If (like myself) your knowledge of boats and rowing starts and ends with Armie Hammer’s character(s) in The Social Network, then don’t worry, as the actual sport itself could easily be replaced by professional tiddlywinks or speed knitting and have the same effect.
Alex’s desires for greatness are never suggested to be fuelled by the enjoyment of her sport or even the desire to be at the top of her field
In fact, it is only when the rowing itself takes a backseat that we are introduced to Alex through the deep emotional and psychological battle that she wages against herself as she aims to earn her spot on the elite varsity squad through literal blood, sweat and tears. Unlike other current media focusing on the ‘obsessive artist’ such as The Queen’s Gambit, however, Alex’s desires for greatness are never suggested to be fuelled by the enjoyment of her sport or even the desire to be at the top of her field – rather, they are fuelled by her masochistic need to place herself in situations where she is disadvantaged, so as to overcome them at the expense of her sanity – both literally and metaphorically.
As the protagonist, Alex is fairly unlikable. Sharp and awkward, often to the point of rudeness, her transactional attitude towards rowing and relationships alike is shown to alienate basically everyone she comes into contact with – and intentionally. More than that, however, she does prove herself to be an understandable and often sympathetic figure as we watch her continue to run in circles and trip herself up, both in academics, extracurricular activities and in her personal life. Her perfectionism, unlike the usual representation of the highly driven workaholic, is not shown with any degree of whimsy or romanticisation, rather as a vice she is unable to switch off. Instead of creative breakthrough and glory, it is an intense fear of mediocrity that drives Alex to neglect her own wellbeing and literally destroy herself in the name of greatness.
Hadaway’s tale is not entirely a pessimistic one, however. In particular, Alex’s enemies-to-lovers relationship with her young lecturer Dani offers some of the film’s more tender moments as we join her in taking a break from the often monotonous sequences of training and rowing and enjoy the spontaneity that love and relationships can hold. This does not last, however, something Alex and the audience seem to be equally aware of, as the brute force of the organisation she applies to her quest for greatness inevitably pushes Dani away.
Although Alex is ultimately successful in beating the record race time that she so desires, we are given the sense that this is her ‘breaking point’
Does she achieve this greatness? Hadaway seems to be in two minds about this herself. Although Alex is ultimately successful in beating the record race time that she so desires, we are given the sense that this is her ‘breaking point’, the time she has finally ‘gone too far’ rather than a flash of excellence. Her fellow rowing mates appear to share this sentiment too as they, disturbed by her intensity and bravado in the boat, conspire against her to lose the final race and therefore hand the elite spot to her nemesis, the considerably more underprivileged and embittered Jamie.
The Novice is not a film that intends to present work ethic or ambition in any specific way, nor does it intend to encourage its audience to view Alex as a heroine or a cautionary example. In fact, it would be hard to identify a specific lesson or message when Alex herself appears to learn nothing – despite her eventual mental breakdown in the arms of Dani and acknowledgement of how unhealthy her mental state has become, she ends the film in the same cycle that she started in, ready to break and remould herself again in whatever new uphill battle she chooses. Is her eventual triumph supposed to be uplifting? Probably not, but ultimately it is Alex herself who turns out to be her own worst enemy, and what could be more relatable than that?