'The Novice' Review: Isabelle Fuhrman Is A Force Of Nature In This Brutal Sports Drama [Tribeca]

There's an art to playing a woman on the edge. Go too far and you fall into camp, not far enough and you might as well be a completely grounded. But Isabelle Furhman (of Orphan and The Hunger Games fame) has shown a talent for playing the unhinged girl; a talent she takes and runs with in the tense rowing drama The Novice.

Helmed by first-time feature director Lauren Hadaway, The Novice stars Furhman as college freshman Alex Dall, a physics major whose worst subject is physics. But that's just the kind of person that Alex is — competing against her own worst instincts until she's pushed to her limits, and far beyond them. That rowing is the sport she chooses as her new, crippling obsession is almost coincidental; the school's rowing team just happens to catch her attention when she arrives on campus and puts her into a near-trance. Does she love the sport? Does she find at least find it interesting? We never find out, just that she wants to be the best at it, at the cost of others' friendships and her own sanity.

The film is based on Hadaway's own experiences as a competitive collegiate rower, which is kind of terrifying to learn. What kind of college sport would push a person to such lengths that they puke after an intense workout, or are so exhausted they piss themselves? But the depiction in The Novice is an extreme one (hopefully), as Alex is the type of person to take things to extremes. She's the student who will finish a test first in her class, but stay two hours late to retake it again, just to make sure everything's correct — to her TA's chagrin.

When Alex attempts to apply this type of all-or-nothing competitiveness to rowing, her taut edges begin to fray, especially when a fellow novice rower — the easygoing, foul-mouthed, and naturally athletic Jamie (an excellent Amy Forsyth) — starts to show her up. Jamie was promised a chance at a scholarship if she makes it onto the varsity team, making her and Alex competitors for a spot in the top boat. But where Alex is rigid and unyielding, Jamie is loose and genial, seeing a kindred spirit in Alex where Alex only sees an obstacle.

The Novice takes Alex through some dark territory, as her competitive drive turns inward to the point that it becomes near-punishing to watch. It's the sports montage as self-flagellation, a reversal of the kind of false triumph that inspirational sports dramas engineer out of a good rock song and a few sweaty pull-ups. Instead, Alex's journey to the top varsity boat is all pain, a psychotic fixation that is more Whiplash-meets-Black Swan for the rowing drama than Rocky. And Hadaway's sharp, cutting direction and stark cinematography lends to the loneliness of Alex's single-minded mission. Rowing is a team sport, but when Alex is on the water, she's the only one on the boat and her bulldozing approach to training only alienates her further from the people around her.

The only one who can break through Alex's hard exterior is her TA Dani (a charming and breezy Dilone), whom Alex fights and flirts with, before finally — maybe — falling for her. The two of them are part of the same elite academic program, which might be what makes Alex see an understanding partner, someone who can embrace her bullish competitive streak. But eventually, Alex's obsession with rowing becomes too destructive for even the one person who might have been able to ground her, and I was sure The Novice might end in an actual bloodbath.

Fuhrman's performance is so unhinged, and Hadaway's direction is so merciless, that The Novice constantly dances on the edge of character drama and full-fledged horror movie. It's an impressive feat of incisively dark tone, even if the plot and characters are little more than shadows. Even so, Fuhrman is a force of nature in The Novice, ripping through the dark and intense sports drama-meets-psychological thriller.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10