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A Hard Row

Todd Martin

The Novice (2021)

Why can’t girls just have fun? We never learn why rowing is so important to Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) – before she can introduce herself at the team induction, she’s interrupted. But it’s made very clear by Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) and fellow novice Jamie (Amy Forsyth) that anyone who’s good enough to make varsity by sophomore year gets a full scholarship. This is probably why there are so many people at the initial tryouts, but the 5 a.m. starts, punishing gym regime and the uncomfortable requirements of the sport swiftly thin the ranks. But Alex can’t get enough, and it’s immediately clear that her determination is indistinguishable from self-harm.

Writer-director Lauren Hadaway has clearly studied the films of Darren Aronofsky, and while many other reviews are making strong comparisons to “Black Swan” – a movie which is still complete and utter trash – the more apt comparison is to “Requiem for a Dream.” It’s not just both movies’ parallel explorations of someone who seeks the physical degradation to match their self-loathing and who finds happiness only when they achieve the level of abasement they feel they deserve. It’s in the quick-chop editing – done by Ms. Hadaway and Nathan Nugent – and in the unusually affecting, layered sound design by Scott Bell, which makes us feel Alex’s fevered thoughts as she forces herself through the motions. It’s in the repeated hallucinations of crabs – rowing slang for losing control of your oar is “catching a crab” – and it’s in the production choice to show Alex’s phone having a cracked screen for the entire year.

The movie was filmed at Trent University in Ontario, where the buildings shown are a collection of concrete monoliths in the style that was initially designed to restore order and clean lines to cities smashed by bombing in the Second World War, but is now shorthand for uncaring, impersonal, inhuman spaces. Alex spends most of her time in “the erg room” – a windowless basement space full of rows of ergonomic rowing machines – until she annoys head coach Edwards (Kate Drummond) so much she gets her own keys to the boathouse. The repeated shots of Alex alone on the foggy river before dawn make you think of that famous shot of Martin Sheen emerging from underwater in “Apocalypse Now.” But Willard’s damage is because of the Vietnam War, while Alex’s is entirely self-inflicted.

While it might be just about believable that someone as unlikable as Alex could fracture so deeply without anyone doing anything about it, it’s ludicrous that no one even notices. She has weeping blisters on her palms, serious enough that she bleeds all over her oars, and none of the other girls in the shell say anything? Come on. One thing this movie does excel at is the dynamic of young women in sport, including a girl who screams obscenities nonstop as a coping mechanism and another one who tantrums at the slightest deviation from her preferred routine, so no one on the team weaponizing faux concern is laughable. It’s even less believable that her sweet girlfriend Dani (Dilone) would be so blind to the state Alex is in, especially with such graphic and scarring self-harm scenes. (The main one is soundtracked to “I’m Sorry” by Peggy Lee, which is a hell of a choice.)

But “The Novice” is not about a person living in the world outside her head. It’s about a young woman who hates herself for not meeting her own standards and who sees her choices as the only logical result of those imperfections. Ms. Fuhrman is so good at the creepy violence of someone who has internalized a fixed set of rules for success that it’s very disturbing. But the movie’s misogyny is more so. “Black Swan” is just the most famous film to explicitly state an ambitious woman is completely crazy. “I, Tonya” is similar on the surface, but the abuse Tonya suffered wasn’t self-inflicted and the reason she fought so hard for her skating career was that the rink was the only place she felt happy and complete. For her, skating was fun and worth all the trauma, whereas Alex is having no fun at all. “Raw” is another similarly-themed but much better freshman-year body-horror film, not least because its protagonist likes herself, but “The Novice” shares its racist trope of having the main person of color exist solely as emotional support for the heroine. And while Alex’s bisexuality is possibly the only thing about herself that she doesn’t have a problem with, the conflating of gayness with mental illness manifesting in violence should have died with “Basic Instinct.”

Finally – the names. The only female character without a gender-neutral first name is Alex’s high-school friend Winona (Jeni Ross), who isn’t a rower. Why has “The Novice” perpetuated, through its names, the subtle idea that women participating in sport are somehow less than feminine? In the credits 32 rowers are listed alphabetically, of whom the first six are named Lexi, Aurora, Sophie, Jill, Brianne and Danielle. Why weren’t names like this considered appropriate for the characters? Are we as a culture still hung up on sports not being girly? Title IX has been law in the US since 1972; why the hell hasn’t American art caught up?

And while no one needs a gender-swapped “12 Mighty Orphans,” this is all so frustrating because there are flickers of a more interesting movie underneath. When Dani invites Alex to see her band play in a club, Alex already has the dress sense and fake ID to get in; and when Dani says she only invited her because she thought she would be denied entry, Alex immediately shrugs herself back into her black fringed jacket and heads for the door. Dating is still a game to her. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if rowing was, too? Especially since it’s a team sport. Why couldn’t this be a movie about a girl who knew she wasn’t good at rowing, but was cheerfully determined to get better? The movie about a group of experienced women athletes getting the intense new girl to relax, find her rhythm and become a full member of their team hasn’t been made yet. So why does “The Novice” sing the same old miserable song? Why aren’t we sick of watching women punish themselves? And considering how many awards this won at the Tribeca Film Festival – why do we keep rewarding it, too?


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