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The Novice (2021) – Review: Lauren Hadaway Has Crafted a Tense and Thrilling Experience That Will Linger in Your Memory

December 13, 2021

Quick Thoughts – Grade – A – Writer and director Lauren Hadaway drew from her own experiences as a college rower and a sound editor to craft a confident, assured, and thrilling movie. 

2021 has been an excellent year for first-time feature-length directors, such as Rebecca Hall (Passing), Fran Kranz (Mass), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tick, Tick…Boom!). The streak of wildly confident debuts continues with The Novice, which was written, directed and edited by Lauren Hadaway who drew from her four years of rowing at Southern Baptist University, and sound design work on movies like Whiplash, Army of the Dead, The Conjuring 2, and Warcraft, to craft one of my favorite films of 2021. The Novice is a wildly confident first feature that showcases Hadaway’s ability to direct, edit, and get excellent performances from her cast. In a perfect world, the IFC released movie will get a swell of word-of-mouth support that leads to some major awards, but, in a year of stiff competition, it would be nice to see it build on its best U.S. Narrative win at the Tribeca Film Festival, and become a popular cult classic.

The Novice centers around a college freshman named Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman – so good) becoming wildly obsessed with becoming part of the varsity rowing crew at her elite college (being a novice doesn’t work for her). Dall is the type of student who isn’t as smart or athletic as her peers (Hadaway compares her to Honda, whereas her teammates are Ferraris), but she will work harder than all of them combined, and if others take 10,000 hours to perfect their craft, she’ll accrue 15,000 hours to make sure she’s just as good. Dall earns her high grades, and a spot on the rowing team by being in a state of constant motion that involves training, studying, and learning everything she can so she can keep up with the elite. The obsession leads to nothing good, and it’s probably the most refreshing element of The Novice. This isn’t a Whiplash-esque film where obsession leads to success, this is the type of movie where obsession leads to self-isolation, lost friendships, bloody hands, and horrific looks from teammates. Instead of being picked up and carried around by her teammates after helping them become champions, she seems content to alienate herself from all of them so she can be briefly better than they are.

Adding to the assured direction, editing and performances, is the horror-esque cinematography by Todd Martin (He’s shot music videos for Radiohead, The Chainsmokers, and Kygo), who makes the tunnels that lead to the rowing facility seem like the gates to hell, and the training sessions seem more like torture than practice. Also, the score by Alex Weston (The Farewell) adds to the stress and makes simple things like taking tests, or walking to practice seem like a nightmare. While watching, I was blown away by how assured and confident Hadaway was. However, after reading more about her career, the surprise disappeared, as she’s worked with Quentin Tarantino, Damien Chazelle, Zack Snyder, James Wan, and Ava DuVernay, and has admitted how obsessive she can be (make sense for a sound designer). The Novice is the product of a talented filmmaker who understands the medium, and uses excellent sound design, and a dose of obsession to make a confident movie. 

Final Thoughts: Watch The Novice, and tell people how good it is.

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