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The Novice: an existential sports movie about sex, college, and rowing

Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature is a partly autobiographical story of a woman pushing herself to physical and mental limit

Rowing? As sports go, propelling a boat from point A to point B may seem like an unusual choice. With boxing, there’s the satisfaction of punching an opponent in the face; in ball games, there are tactics, goals, and dramatically shifting score lines. But what if rowing was not only unfashionable, but also damaging to your psyche? “When you watch a race happening, it looks peaceful,” says Lauren Hadaway, whose debut feature, The Novice, is partly autobiographical. “But when you’re in the boat, it feels like you’re going to die. You can’t feel your legs. Your vision is tunnelling to a pinpoint. I’ve had people piss themselves in the boat.”

When I meet Hadaway, she’s out of breath, having sprinted across London to BFI Southbank where The Novice is screening as part of BFI Flare. The American writer-director admits her frenzied state fits the movie. Alex Dall, played by Isabelle Fuhrman of Orphan fame, is a physics student whose life revolves around rowing. She wakes up at 4:30am to train, she alienates her teammates with her dedication to the oar, and yet she still manages to squeeze in lectures and exams. At film school, Hadaway would also row in her spare time. “You’re always covered in dirt and lake water,” she recalls. “You don’t have time to shower. You’re running to classes and not sleeping a lot. It’s disgusting.”

So why do it? “The mental challenge. Practice is two hours, and you’re doing the same motion over and over, staring at the back of someone’s head. There’s no music out on the water. Sometimes you’re rowing in complete silence. There’s something meditative about it.” She adds, “But it can be a psychological clusterfuck.”

Nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, The Novice is an existential coming-of-age thriller that’s riveting despite depicting a sport most people haven’t watched since a two-minute scene in The Social Network. While Alex’s only friend, Jamie (Amy Forsyth), needs a rowing scholarship to afford her studies, Alex is simply challenging herself. “This is a film with rowing, it’s not a film about rowing,” Hadaway explains. “It’s about grit and ambition. It could be ping pong and you’d have the same movie. And honestly, I’d like to see a ping pong movie that’s like this, because that would be epic.”

For the past decade, Hadaway has been one of Hollywood’s leading sound editors. Her credits include Whiplash (“the film I most identified with”), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again! (“fun and wasn’t as intense”) and The Hateful Eight (“I moved to LA with the goal to work on a Tarantino film”). But in November 2016, during reshoots for Justice League, she started writing The Novice. “We shot it two-and-a-half years later. In that time, there was a lot of traumatic life shit. All the drafts got darker, because I was using it as catharsis to work stuff out.”

As expected, The Novice delivers an immersive, nightmarish soundscape: the pitter-patter of rainfall emulates a cruel world crashing down upon Alex. Moreover, Hadaway’s tight editing and specific camera choices establish the all-consuming nature of rowing. For instance, Alex’s routine unfolds in gruelling montages that are driven by a mantra (“Legs, body, arms! Arms, body, legs!) and drift into delirium. One ERG session fades into fantasy when Alex imagines herself straddling a rowing machine in complete darkness; sweat drips off her skin, her face exuding both pain and pleasure.

“I intentionally shot that sequence to be like a sex scene, in super slo-mo, at 500 frames a second,” Hadaway says, referring to the aesthetic of 90s erotic thrillers. The hard cut to reality then reveals total, utter frustration – if we’re being crude, it’s edging without a release. “There are sexual undertones throughout. I framed it as a romance story between Alex and rowing. There’s the initial attraction. There’s the first time making love. There’s blissfully being in love. And then there’s the slow, toxic descent.”

In a subplot, Alex is seduced by a teaching assistant, Dani (model-turned-actor Dilone). Unlike Whiplash, which shows Miles Teller dumping his girlfriend to prioritise music, The Novice features a more believable protagonist who can attend the occasional party. Early on, Alex even experiments with a guy who only lasts a few pumps. “It’s what Alex has to learn about rowing,” Hadaway explains. “It’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean. Technique matters. What better analogy than having shitty sex and just getting it in there with some guy. And then it’s a mind-blowing experience with a woman who doesn’t have ‘the equipment’ – you know, for people raised in a heterosexual society.”

While Alex’s romance with Dani is key to The Novice, her sexuality isn’t a major obstacle or source of dramatic tension. “I wanted to do a queer film where the character just is,” Hadaway says. “There’s no message attached. For a long time, the only queer stories we had were about coming out, oppression, or something like that. It makes it feel like being gay is your whole, entire world. The reality is, most queer people feel like being queer is just one part of themselves. It’s not their most interesting thing. You have people who wear rainbows all the time – those people exist. But for the most part, you just are that.”

Though Hadaway is hesitant to comment on it, Fuhrman seems to channel her director’s garrulous personality and work ethic. During the pandemic, Hadaway juggled The Novice’s postproduction schedule with her sound duties on Justice League: The Snyder Cut. “I was stuck at my house. It was 100 hours a week sometimes. I went crazy for sure. But it helped the energy of the product.”

Hadaway was hired for the original Justice League and thus handled ADR when Joss Whedon took over. In 2020, Ray Fisher tweeted that Whedon was “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” to the cast and crew on set. “No one’s ever asked me about it,” Hadaway says. “It’s weird, because I was on the periphery. When I was in the UK, between shoots, the actors would come out and shoot ADR lines, and I picked up on tension. I wasn’t seeing it first-hand. But I know that Joss did avoid going to some ADR sessions – I think because of cast beef.” She laughs. “So that made for some very interesting situations, to be trapped in the middle of it.”

During the pandemic, Hadaway moved to Paris and describes writing as her new rowing. She cites watching an early cut of Whiplash as a life-defining moment (“I felt like I could conquer the world”) and is moved when strangers tweet her to say they’ve taken up rowing.

“The film is my existentialist anthem,” Hadaway says. “For Alex, rowing is her meaning.” She rolls up a sleeve to reveal the word “ennui” inked on her arm. “I got this tattoo to remind myself that when I feel bored, it’s a sign to figure out my purpose. Hopefully, people can latch onto the thing that makes them feel alive.” So everyone should watch The Novice and take up rowing? “I’m sure there’s a bunch of other cool stuff to do besides rowing.”

The Novice is released in UK cinemas and on digital platforms on April 1