Review: ‘The Novice’ (2021), starring Isabelle Fuhrman

June 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice” (Photo by Todd Martin)

“The Novice” (2021)

Directed by Lauren Hadaway

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Novice” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class and who are connected in some way to a well-known university.

Culture Clash: A newcomer to a prestigious university’s women’s rowing team pushes herself to her physical, emotional and mental limits.

Culture Audience: “The Novice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about blind ambition, self-esteem and how women interact in traditionally male-dominated sports.

Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice” (Photo by Todd Martin)

“The Novice” takes a harrowing and effective look at the dark side of being an overachiever. Isabelle Fuhrman gives a noteworthy performance as a college student who finds out the hard way that winning isn’t worth it if you lose yourself in the process. At times, “The Novice” (which takes place over the course of one academic year) can be a bit too repetitive in hammering this point into the movie’s plot. But through some striking cinematography and sound design, “The Novice” succeeds in building a very specific world, told from the protagonist’s point of view, where the protagonist’s raw emotions and single-minded ambition can be felt by viewers on a visceral level.

Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, “The Novice” is Hadaway’s feature-film directorial debut, after several years of experience working in film sound. Her extensive background in sound can be experienced all over “The Novice,” which often uses a technique that depicts how someone often tunes out sound around them because they are focused on something else. “The Novice” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The movie won three prizes at the festival: Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film; Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Fuhrman); and Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Todd Martin).

If there’s a lot of “tune out” sound techniques in “The Novice,” that’s because Furhman’s Alex Dall character in “The Novice” does a lot of tuning out in her life, so that she can have a single-minded focus on whatever goal is her current obsession. Alex is in her second or third year of an unnamed East Coast university in the U.S. (the movie was actually filmed in Peterborough, New Hampshire), where she is a physics major. When she joins the university’s Ravens rowing team for women as a novice, it sets her down a self-destructive path where she becomes consumed with the goal to be the best rower on the team, no matter what happens.

Just to give you an idea of what type of person Alex is, at one point in the movie, a physics teaching assistant named Dani (played by Dilone) points out to Alex that physics is Alex’s worst subject in school. However, Alex has chosen physics as her major. Why? Because Alex is the type of person who likes being an underdog and who can prove skeptics and naysayers wrong when they underestimate her.

Alex also believes that the people who deserve the greatest rewards in life are the ones who work the hardest, not necessarily those who are the most naturally gifted, the smartest, or those with the best personalities. It’s why she continues to push herself in her physics classes and won’t switch majors, even though she’s struggling with mediocre grades in physics.

Whereas most university students would choose a major in a subject that they truly enjoy, that’s not Alex’s way of doing things. After a while, observant viewers will notice that Alex doesn’t have a passion for physics. However, she won’t change her major because she’s the type of person who thinks that once she chooses to do something, she has to be the best at it. If she changed her major, she would consider it a “failure” in judgment and “failure” in persistence.

Alex has the same mentality when she joins the novice crew of the university’s women’s rowing team. The novices train with the knowledge that only a select few will be chosen for the university’s varsity rowing team, which is the team that competes in the official rowing matches. It’s mentioned early on in the movie that this unnamed university is an elite institution, where most of the students were top achievers in high school and probably for most of their lives.

Even though Alex has no previous experience in rowing as a sport, she approaches her training with the same “I have to be the best no matter what” attitude. For someone like Alex, she doesn’t just want to win and be the best. She wants to break records.

The trainer of the novices is an easygoing and friendly leader named Coach Pete (played by Jonathan Cherry), while the trainer of the varsity team members is Coach Edwards (played by Kate Drummond), who is more aloof and rigid than Coach Pete. A woman named Erin (played by Charlotte Ubben) is an assistant coach who works directly with Coach Edwards. Erin has a similar no-nonsense attitude as Coach Edwards, but Erin is more approachable to the students on the team than Coach Edwards is.

Alex’s best friend at school is fun-loving Winona (played by Jeni Ross), who seems as content with her life as Alex is restless with her own life. There are a few scenes where Alex and Winona hang out together, but their friendship eventually fades into the background as Alex becomes more obsessed with being the best on the rowing team. Alex does take time to have a social life, but nothing is more important to Alex than being considered a success at whatever she does.

There’s a scene early on in the film where Alex and Winona go to a party, Alex meets a guy there, and they have sex that ends too quickly because of his “performance issues.” Alex cringes and half-jokes about it when she and Winona talk about it the next day. Dating is not a major priority for Alex, and she doesn’t put a label on her sexuality.

Later on in the movie, Alex and Dani, who’ve been having a mild flirtation with each other, become lovers around the same time that Dani has moved on from being Alex’s teaching assistant because Dani got accepted into another graduate program. Dani is very sarcastic with Alex in the beginning of their relationship. But as they grow closer, Dani shows a more sensitive and caring side, and she becomes the closest thing that Alex has to a therapist.

Dani also moonlights as a singer. She and her band perform moody, somewhat experimental pop/rock music. The only reason why this aspect of Dani’s life is shown in the movie is because Dani invited Alex to see her perform at a nightclub. It’s during this date that Dani and Alex acknowledge their sexual attraction to each other, and they sleep together for the first time as as a result of that date.

Alex stands out from the other novices because she’s the one who works the hardest. And so by October, which viewers can assume is just a month or two after Alex joined the team of novice rowers, Alex is selected to be on the varsity team. The varsity team will be doing a regatta in the following week. It’s not a lot of time to prepare, but Alex is up for the challenge.

In every sports team, there’s rivalry among the team members. And for Alex, her biggest team rival is Jamie Brill (played by Amy Forsyth), another novice who was selected to be on the varsity team. Jamie has an athletic scholarship to attend the university, and her participation and achievements in the row crew are a condition of keeping her scholarship. Therefore, the stakes are very high for Jamie on how well she does in these rowing competitions.

Early on in the movie, Jamie confidently accepts Alex’s praise that Jamie is the best novice on the team. Jamie is also so self-assured that she defiantly ignores the attempts of the varsity team members to haze and belittle the novices. For example, during a bus ride, she refuses some varsity team members’ orders that novices have to sit at the back of the bus. When Jamie notices that Alex wants to outshine everyone, their relationship becomes a lot less cordial.

Jamie openly expresses her resentment of the rowing team’s most privileged students, whom she calls “silver spoon bitches,” because they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for the school’s tuition. Because of the way that Alex guns so hard to be the top person on the team, Jamie assumes that Alex is driven by the same motivation that Jamie has: to keep an athletic scholarship. When Jamie finds out how Alex’s tuition is being paid, it leads to an explosive confrontation between Jamie and Alex that’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

“The Novice” shows plenty of ways that Alex pushes herself to be the best on this rowing team. During the first meeting of the novices, she’s the only one to take notes. She continues to take notes throughout her entire training. And she repeats mantras to herself, sometimes out loud. Her obsessiveness eventually alienates her from the other team members, a few of whom openly call Alex a “psycho.”

Her über-competitiveness takes a toll on her physically. Like any intense sports movie, there’s plenty of blood, sweat and tears. And whether queasy viewers like it or not, there’s urine. Alex pushes herself so hard during a training session, that when she collapses out of physical exhaustion, she’s so tired that she can’t get up, and she urinates on herself. In this scene, the camera pans up so that viewers can see Alex sprawled on her back, on a locker room floor, as some her teammates watch uncomfortably when Alex’s urine starts to form in a puddle around her.

The movie makes the point over and over that no one is harder on Alex than Alex herself. She doesn’t have a sadistic or overly demanding coach. She doesn’t have parents who are pressuring her to be number one in everything she does. (Alex’s parents aren’t even seen or mentioned in the movie.) And she doesn’t have a bullying rival (who’s usually the chief villain in a lot of sports movies) on another team or on her own team.

“The Novice” depicts Alex’s single-mindedness in many of the scenes where the loudest sounds are of her heavy breathing, even when she’s surrounded by other people. In the rowing competition scenes, the cinematography and Alex Weston’s musical score often have a frantic and jagged intensity, similar to a horror movie, in order to take viewers inside Alex’s increasingly disturbed mind.

Alex’s training scenes often evoke a sense of grimness and gloom. And yes, there are predictable scenes of Alex screaming at the top of her lungs when she’s by herself, just to make sure that viewers see the anguish that she’s feeling inside of herself. A pivotal scene toward the end of the movie is an example of the deep fear of failing that drives Alex to put her own safety at risk.

The movie also has several scenes of her running to get to certain places on time, as if her schedule is so packed that she barely has time to go where she needs to go. Meanwhile, there are other scenes where people such as Coach Pete or Dani gently and tactfully tell Alex that she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. She ignores any and all advice to “lighten up” and have some fun with her rowing activities. This repetition all makes it very obvious that Alex is headed for some kind of meltdown.

“The Novice” will be best appreciated if viewers know before seeing the movie that it’s more of a psychological drama than a sports drama. Whether or not Alex and her team become champions is not the point. It’s a story about what can happen to someone who thinks failure is not an option because that person wants to shut out the harsh reality that failure is a part of life.

UPDATE: IFC Films will release “The Novice” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Tape’ (2020), starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Annarosa Mudd and Tarek Bishara

April 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape” (2020)

Directed by Deborah Kampmeier 

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s modern-day community of aspiring actors, the sexual-misconduct drama “Tape” has a cast with all of the main characters as white and middle-class, with some African American and Latino characters in small speaking roles.

Culture Clash: An aspiring actress who went through a harrowing sexual experience with a sleazy director plans to get revenge on him by exposing his misdeeds.

Culture Audience: “Tape” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in #MeToo stories, but the movie fails the #MeToo movement by having a completely ludicrous and unrealistic ending.

Annarosa Mudd in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape” writer/director Deborah Kampmeier says that the movie is based on the real-life #MeToo experience of a friend of hers. However, in telling this story and making it into a movie, Kampmeier ditches the realism in the last 15 minutes and turns it into a melodramatic, ridiculous mess that is in no way believable and cheapens the message that the film is trying to convey. There are tacky Lifetime movies that have more realistic endings than “Tape.”

The beginning of “Tape” starts out promising enough, because it looks like it’s going to be an edgy independent drama about a traumatized woman seeking some kind of self-empowerment by getting revenge on the person who has harmed her. The opening scene is very bloody and graphic, as it shows a woman in her 20s (played by Annarosa Mudd) in her bathroom, putting a ball piercing in the middle of her tongue and then cutting her wrists with a razor blade. She then shaves off most of her long, dark hair until she has a buzz cut. And she also straps on a hidden camera around her abdomen.

What is going on with her? Viewers don’t find out her name—Rosa Terrano—until about midway through the story when she goes to one of her social-media accounts. Until then, she wears all black and sunglasses, as she lurks around a shabby studio that’s being used for auditions. At one of the auditions, she hangs out in the waiting room with all the other young women who are there.

Rosa stands out from the rest of the auditioners, because they’re all long-haired brunettes with a bright-eyed wholesome look, while Rosa looks like a mopey skinhead who’s on her way to a Marilyn Manson concert. At the audition, a 15-year-old girl admits she isn’t on the audition list. She’s crushed when she finds out that she won’t get a chance because she didn’t follow the emailed instructions to get on the list. One of the auditioners is friendly and empathetic Pearl Osborne (played by Isabelle Fuhrman), who comforts the girl before Pearl goes into the audition room.

During her audition, Pearl is asked by the director Lux St. Seguin (played by Tarek Bishara) why Pearl thinks she’s the perfect candidate for the project, which is a reality show. Also in the room is a female assistant or casting agent. Pearl answers that she’s talented, but she admits she needs to market herself better. It’s the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Pearl lacks confidence and is therefore a vulnerable target for a sexual predator.

After her audition, Rosa and Pearl have a brief conversation in the waiting room, where they exchange pleasantries. Rosa tells Pearl that she auditioned with a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” Pearl says she doesn’t know that play, but she knows director Julie Taymor’s 1999 movie adaption “Titus.” Pearl says she remembers the movie has a scene with a woman who is raped and then mutilated by her rapists, by cutting out her tongue and dismembering her hands so she won’t report the crime. The obvious parallel is how Rosa mutilated herself in the beginning of the story.

For the vast majority of the movie, Rosa plays private detective, by following Pearl—Rosa got Pearl’s home address by taking a photo of the sign-in list at the audition—and videotaping Pearl without her knowledge. This is a plot hole for the movie, because out of all of the women who auditioned for Lux that day, how does Rosa know that Pearl is going to be Lux’s next victim? Shouldn’t Rosa be secretly following Lux instead?

Pearl gets a callback for the auditions, and Rosa just happens to be there too, and she makes an excuse for not going into the audition room. However, Lux sees Rosa hanging around outside and asks if he knows her. Based on Rosa’s reaction, she definitely knows him, but she doesn’t want him to recognize her.

Pearl is then seen alone at a dining table in her apartment, where she tearfully speaks to her mother by phone and expresses her frustrations and self-doubt over constantly being rejected for various reasons when she goes to auditions. After the phone call, Pearl goes into the bathroom and vomits up what she just ate, and then looks in the mirror and practices what she hopes will be her Academy Awards speech someday.

It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because Fuhrman (who’s by far the best actor in the cast) handles it very realistically. What’s chilling about the scene is that there are countless aspiring actresses who’ve probably done the exact same thing. Although it’s possible for male actors to develop eating disorders over body insecurities, more often than not, bulimics are female. Meanwhile, as this is taking place, Rosa is seated at an outdoor table in Times Square looking on a computer tablet at all the video footage that she has of Pearl.

It isn’t long before Rosa, once again lurking outside the audition studio, sees Pearl again. Pearl is in tears because she didn’t make the cut in the latest round of auditions. However, Lux the director approaches Pearl on the street before she walks away to tell her that she’s too special to be in a reality show. And he has good news for her: She would be perfect for his “protégée program,” where he can work one-on-one with her to help her break into the business. Of course, Rosa is standing close enough to catch all of this on her hidden camera.

From there, Rosa prepares to secretly video record what happens during Lux’s “private acting session” with Pearl. Rosa bribes a guy who does security for a run-down warehouse-styled studio area to enter one of the studios and plant hidden cameras in there. One of the cameras she plants in a light switch, and another camera she plants in a desk clock. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Rosa has been there before and knows exactly what’s going to happen to Pearl.

Lux is as sleazy as you think he might be. He’s got a video camera set up in the middle of the room, whose few furnishings include a bed, and it’s very easy to see how this “private acting session” is going to go. “Tape” shows that Lux is not a Harvey Weinstein-type bully but someone who’s a smooth-talking manipulator, who keeps telling his victims that they’ll be “empowered” by letting go of their sexual inhibitions with him. He tells Pearl that she’s free to go any time she wants, but then he warns her that she’ll just be going back to her frustrating existence as an out-of-of work, aspiring actress, and he can change her life for  the better if she just does what he suggests.

He also keeps repeating that acting in “the real world” requires actions that “aren’t for the meek” and are the opposite of what’s taught in formal acting classes. And he constantly mentions that almost every famous actress has done nudity and sex scenes. It progresses to the point where he gets completely naked and tells Pearl that in order to “get real” in the nude scene that he wants to film of her, he has to have sex with her on camera.

Pearl is extremely nervous and uncertain, but in his attempt to wear her down, he shows her the sex scene that Halle Berry did in “Monster’s Ball” to prove that actresses can win an Oscar for doing an explicit sex scene in a movie. He also tells her that sex scenes in movies that win Oscars are not simulated but real. It’s impossible to know how many “casting couch” situations have happened where aspiring actresses have been told the same things by predatory people in the industry, but “Tape” capably demonstrates that there are plenty of vulnerable and desperate people who will be targets for this type of manipulation.

Meanwhile, Rosa is outside a nearby building and watching and recording all of this hidden camera footage happening live. She has the choice to intervene or not. Does she put a stop to what’s going on? And what exactly does she plan to do with the video footage? Those questions are answered in the movie, which should have ended by answering those questions.

But no, the last 15 minutes of the movie shift into such a wildly different direction and tone—so much so that this plot twist seems like it was meant for another film altogether. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that it completely goes against Rosa’s meticulous planning that she had in the previous majority of the story.

What Rosa does at the end of the film is so poorly thought-out, and the reactions of the people around her are so mind-numbingly unrealistic, that it makes “Tape” a disappointing, failed attempt at being an important feminist movie. “Tape” wants desperately to become a classic film for the #MeToo era, but the movie’s dumb ending means that “Tape” won’t even register as a footnote.

Full Moon Films released “Tape” through a Crowdcast virtual theatrical release on March 26, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release is on April 10, 2020.