Isabelle Fuhrman gives a startling performance in 'The Novice.' Courtesy of IFC Films.

The Novice is like Whiplash (2014) if the pitiless instructor played by J.K. Simmons was a relentless inner monologue instead of a person. Lauren Hadaway’s semi-autobiographical feature debut is about a college freshman, Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), who joins her school’s rowing team. Whereas most of the other girls at the initial meet-up seem receptive to wherever the sport takes them, Alex is neither so open nor wants to connect much with her new teammates. What we’ll soon gather is that she isn’t the type to approach life with a healthy amount of “I’ll see what happens!” flexibility. Competitiveness is her defining trait. A friend from high school she sits with at lunch one afternoon confesses to being nervous for Alex their senior year: everyone could tell she was wearing herself into an academic ground trying to get valedictorian. And in other scenes, where Alex is taking exams in big lecture halls, she’s always the last one to leave by hours, teased by one TA (Dilone) that it might not be so necessary to treat her work to quadruple- and quintuple-checks. She might not be the smartest student in her major, but she certainly holds the figurative gold medal for the hardest working. 

The moment Alex first catches sight of those rowing machines, soon to become her favored perch, we can practically see her mind start getting bogged down by what will become her newest obsession. She’s not merely going to master this sport she’s never tried before: she’s going to be the very best, too seduced by the image of herself commandeering a varsity boat as a freshman to not give in. She never considers that her individualism might not be well-suited to a sport as collaborative as rowing, or that endeavoring to get on varsity but at a pace that doesn’t require, essentially, grinding yourself down until you’re practically a twitching pile of bloody pulp isn’t a bad thing. “I’m so tired of everyone in my life telling me to relax!” Alex exclaims late in the film. You wish she’d listen. 

The Novice may put you in mind of movies like The Red Shoes (1948), Black Swan (2010), or, naturally, Whiplash. (Hadaway unsurprisingly did the sound editing on that last movie.) Like those films, The Novice follows someone so preoccupied with succeeding in their field that it’s fundamentally driving them crazy. That obsession so much dominates the screen that your body is practically always prepared for the worst possible thing to happen almost from the moment you meet this character. You regularly wonder watching The Novice if it’s death Alex really craves rather than a conventional win. Whether that demise is her own or that of a teammate she considers a threat remains a nerve-racking mystery.

Pitching the sound way up so that you hear every cracked joint, skin scratch, and scribbled word going into Alex’s diligently tended-to diary, and keeping the visuals menacing with desaturated color and lots of vertiginous close-ups, Hadaway meticulously and effectively ensnares you in Alex’s austere and self-punishing conception of the world. Training scenes are about as warm as a machete-centric set piece in a slasher movie; an athlete’s body feels not like something to be exclusively in awe of á la Personal Best (1982), a sports movie that at times scans like an art object, but like a slab of marble to be hammered into a desired shape. The Novice is brilliant purely as a stylistic showcase: I can’t think of many films of late to quite as vividly translate its main character’s state of mind on a technical front. Much of that vividness, though, couldn’t be achieved without an actress like Fuhrman centering everything. Her thousand-yard stare — a special thing casting directors took notice of even when she was a kid (see 2009’s Orphan or 2012’s The Hunger Games) — can be more telling than a line reading. 

Sometimes Hadaway’s dedication to psychological insularity comes at the expense of dramatic expansion (barely anything is divulged of Alex’s upbringing or her relationships with family members, for instance), but The Novice is nevertheless one of the most startlingly confident directing debuts in recent memory. With unnerving accuracy, it captures the simultaneous allure and destructiveness of obsession. It also shrewdly, and refreshingly, shoos away the long-running sports-movie attitudinal clichés that mirror American society’s ingrained propping up of meritocracy: If I work really hard, I’ll succeed; as long as I succeed, it doesn’t matter what it takes to get there. The Novice is fascinated by its heroine’s self-destruction in the name of victory, but isn’t doing any wrong-headed glorification of it in the process.

Courtesy of Shadow&Act.jpeg

IN THE FALLOUT, actress Megan Park’s feature-filmmaking debut, high-school students Vada, Mia, and Quinton (Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, and Niles Fitch) see their relationships and lives change forever in the course of six minutes. When a classmate opens fire in their school’s hallway one morning, this mostly unacquainted trio winds up in the same bathroom stall, huddling on top of the toilet fearing for what could come next.

The aftermath of their survival drives the rest of The Fallout, which details the heady relationships Vada (who becomes the movie’s focal point) forms with these one-time strangers; the increasingly dysfunctional ways she copes with a trauma no one should ever have to know; and the escalating feelings of estrangement from her concerned family members and especially her best friend before the shooting (Will Ropp), who’s jumped headlong into anti-gun activism.

Ortega, who was one of my favorite things about the recent Scream 5, does great work as a self-described “chill” teenager trying to convince everyone, including herself, that she’s fine as she anxiously avoids school and dabbles in drugs. Ziegler also makes an impression as a girl who, already struggling with neglect from her always-away-on-business parents and alienation from her peers (she’s a nationally known dancer whose millions of Instagram followers don’t translate to meaningful friendships), is having a difficult time mustering any strength. And Fitch is the film’s revelation as a gentle and considerate young man who lost his younger brother in the shooting. 

The Fallout can sometimes ring false when its characters’ pain is most bluntly externalized: this reaches an apex in a couple of well-acted but awkwardly expository therapy scenes. (Shailene Woodley, who starred with Park on The Secret Life of an American Teenager, does turn in decent work as Vada’s psychologist, though.) But The Fallout otherwise doesn’t often falter while empathetically delving into its difficult, rarely dramatized subject. It plausibly considers how someone could process overwhelming and senseless tragedy in tandem with burgeoning adulthood, all while obliquely critiquing the political callousness that results not in proactive systemic change but a fleet of front-door metal detectors, active-shooter training drills, and futile offerings of thoughts and prayers.

Movie Love is 425’s weekly film column. For more movie recommendations from Blake Peterson, subscribe to his newsletter.

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