There’s a voice inside the head of college freshman Alex (a remarkable, physically and mentally committed Isabelle Fuhrman) that drives her. Hectoring, inescapable: this inner voice is the reason she chose to major in physics, her weakest subject, just so that she can conquer it. It’s the reason that not only does she sign up for the college’s novice rowing programme, she pushes herself to bleeding and breaking point to be the best, to make it into the elite varsity team. This voice, a muttered inner mantra that is as compulsive and damaging in its way as the impulse to self-harm, is integral to this stunning feature debut, contributing to the film’s intriguingly textured and three-dimensional sound design. The aural component of the movie – voices flayed and torn up, bleeding into a score that at first nods to the austere traditions of the campus, before taking on a more clattering and agitated character – is foregrounded to an unusual degree. It’s not surprising to learn that its writer and director, Lauren Hadaway, who based this film on her own experiences on a college rowing team, has a background in sound editing.
Hadaway’s sound department work includes Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. But it’s another of her credits, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which is the most useful reference point for The Novice. Both films are punishingly intense portraits of ambition tipping over into obsession. Both are stylistically bold and confrontational pieces of film-making. Both feature central performances which are feats of physical endurance. And both announced a significant new voice in US cinema. I can’t wait to see – and hear – what she does next.