The cinema of overachievement has a sharp new entry to add to the likes of Black Swan and Whiplash in this stylishly directed psychodrama set in the world of varsity rowing. It’s played out in the confines of spindly competitive boats, but debut writer-director Lauren Hadaway is making a broader point about the obsessive-compulsive drive towards success in American society, anchored in a superb performance from Isabelle Fuhrman as relentless novice rower Alex.
Freshman Alex, physically slighter than many of her fellow athletes, seems to lack the right stuff as a top-level rower. But with the same dogged attitude that’s led her to major in her worst subject, physics, she resolves to push her limits and starts to impress her coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry), who initially can’t remember her name. So she is invited to the chilly 5am lakeside to train with the varsity leaguers – along with fellow novice Jamie (Amy Forsyth) who, from a humbler background, needs the scholarship that a place on the team would give her more than Alex does.
Hadaway excels at putting us at the heart of Alex’s febrile focus, with tactile closeups of details in the grotto-like training room and cacophonous sound design in which Pete’s drills (“Legs-body-arms”) percolate in to her mind and on to the soundtrack. Hadaway turns this impressionism inside-out in moments of intensity and exultation, like the spotlit void into which Alex falls during a time-trial on the machine, or a silky early-morning lake outing serenaded by Connie Francis. The increasingly fixated and alienated student starts seeing crabs (a reference to the rowing term for losing control of your oar) everywhere and envisioning her rivals with crow’s heads (the team insignia).
While the film never loses its bloody-fingered grasp of the emotional moment, it falls short on a broader psychological level. Alex is a presidential scholar, so has no material reason to chase the varsity place. But the film maintains a wilful vagueness about what it is that’s driving her, and doesn’t seek to Freudsplain her. With little beyond training and races, the drama has a grinding quality that Alex’s affair with an assistant teacher Dani (Dilone) does little to alleviate. Still, it’s hard to deny Fuhrman’s pinch-faced vehemence and the film’s hallucinatory verve.