Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice.” Photo courtesy of Picture Movers Anonymous, Exit Strategy Productions, and H2L Media Group.

Underdog stories live in the heart of American moviegoers like not much else, often manifesting in the world of sports.

Audiences are familiar with the beats of these movies, and we take comfort in them, whether it’s Rocky thrusting his fists into the air during that iconic training montage, Roy Hobbs’ final home run in “The Natural,” or everyone chanting Rudy’s name in unison. The sense of triumph we feel at these stories is baked into our DNA. Underdogs might not always win the final game, but they always achieve something great against all odds.

Lauren Hadaway’s feature debut “The Novice” has many of the hallmarks of a traditional underdog story. Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a college freshman who has never picked up an oar before, joins her school’s novice crew team and becomes determined to make varsity. Throughout the story, the audience is privy to many a gritty montage, and forced to pay attention to the great physical and mental sacrifices needed to overcome the obstacles Alex faces. But “The Novice” dares to ask a question that many underdog stories don’t: what if hard work and dedication aren’t enough?

Hadaway’s unnerving film tells a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective, using uncanny sound design and camera work to show the dark side of obsession, resulting in a psychological thriller about an underdog who can’t quite make the cut. 

Hadaway previously worked as sound editor on 2014’s drumming drama “Whiplash,” which shares many of its themes with “The Novice.” Both are tales of a young person striving for perfection, but more crucially, both use sound to focus and disorient in equal measure.

In “The Novice,” the film’s score and diegetic sound achieve this together. At the beginning of the film, steady plucked strings underscore a beautiful, yet calculated melody as the camera zooms in on a singular boat. When the audience first sees Alex, she’s as focused as the score, obsessive, but to an end — the type of student who finishes her exam first, but then takes it two more times to make sure she hasn’t made a mistake. The scratch of a pencil and Alex’s rhythmic mummering join the score as she finishes her exam. She then rushes out of the room, panting to get to the first crew team meeting, the methodical, thrumming score underneath her pace. 

As Alex takes in the rowing exercise room for the first time, the score overtakes the meeting going on around her, her future teammates voices droning on at a muted level. The first time Alex climbs on a rowing machine, Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) gives her advice on her technique. “Legs, body, arms. Arms, body, legs,” he says. This mantra follows Alex wherever she goes, a slow, purring whisper running over the score. The whispers drown out her roommate, her teammates, her coaches, and the rest of the world around her. 

This fusion of scientific and hypnotic sound primes the audience to believe Alex might have the chops to make varsity. Other whispers join her mantra implying she’s not good enough, but at first this feels thematically familiar. After all, she’s the underdog, and underdogs need something to overcome. As the first of many exercise montages begins, the score begins to pick up. Alex doesn’t make an impression at first, but she’s determined. She figures out what time she’ll need to be competitive, and as she moves onto the machine, the noise of the room and the rest of the rowers around her snap from view. A spotlight shines on Alex, her body slick with sweat, slight but strong muscles flexing as the camera glides slowly over her body on the rowing machine. Against all odds, she gets the time she needs. She’s one of two novices to land a spot practicing with varsity. Things are looking up. 

But things quickly begin to fall apart. Alex might be the type of student to look over a quiz three times before turning it in, but she’s also the type of student who still gets a C on that quiz. Hadaway’s script is intent on marking the difference between natural talent and hard work, where they converge, and where they differ. The revelation of Alex’s quiz grade – plus the news that she only got a spot with varsity because another girl turned it down – drops the first bit of doubt that maybe her determination won’t be enough. This information changes the tone of the film and is reflected in the sound design and score. As more of these revelations come to light, Alex Weston’s calculated score turns to something a bit more sinister and manic. Distorted instruments begin to simmer underneath those focused, plucked strings, buzzing with something akin to paranoia. The first echoes of Alex’s struggle with self harm become evident around this time – she picks at her inner thigh, snapping her leggings against herself, foreshadowing a habit that will escalate into something much more detrimental. The whispers that felt like a mantra at the film’s beginning feel disdainful now, musing with casual cruelty that Alex is not a natural and not the best novice on the team – not like her main competition, Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth). 

The audience is primed to position Alex as the Rocky figure of the film from the beginning, but in a more traditional underdog story, it might have been Jamie that we rooted for.  Like Alex, she’s never rowed before, she’s not interested in making friends, and she has a steely determination to be the best. Unlike Alex, she has a natural athletic ability that inclines her toward the sport, and she’s in desperate need of a scholarship – something that might be afforded to her if she can make varsity. Jamie and Alex are often positioned rowing next to each other, and Jamie’s physical advantage becomes apparent as the film begins to show the wear and tear on Alex’s body in nauseating detail. Hadaway repeats the technique of shining a spotlight on an isolated Alex during her machine rows, but the camera doesn’t focus on her strength this time. Alex’s body comes to a breaking point, bones creaking, veins popping out against her wan skin, her labored breathing growing louder and louder. She imagines a group of her teammates surrounding her, and she panics as they laugh at her weakness. 

While some sports movies treat this extreme ambition as admirable, “The Novice” approaches Alex’s sheer resolve as harmful to herself and those around her. Alex is not set in the mold of a Rocky, or a Rudy, or a Roy Hobbs, becoming a paragon of hard work to be respected. Instead, she becomes cold, calculating, and highly paranoid. She doesn’t like her teammates that much, a trait which at first gives her and Jamie something to bond over. But, Jamie, in traditional underdog fashion, learns to appreciate the benefits of a team, which in turn pushes Alex’s paranoia further. The closest Alex comes to embodying any of those prototypical underdogs is in one of two key montages, when she trains on her own over the winter, further isolating herself from her teammates. The montage features an energetic rock song and is one of the few moments later in the film where Alex seems like she’s beginning to come into her own. But, as soon as the rest of the team returns, the training montage that follows takes a nosedive. There’s no peppy rock song here. Instead, a more disorienting version of Weston’s menacing score returns, paired with whispers, the slaps of paddles on the water, and scratching pens. The return of the team also means the return of Alex’s paranoia, her teammates’ raincoats on the water making them seem more like ravens, squawking at her with menace. 

“The Novice” is not shy about the fact that Alex will never be as good as Jamie, the typical underdog prototype. In Jamie’s underdog story, Alex would be just a blip, one more obstacle to overcome. But what makes “The Novice” so novel is that it dares to shirk tradition, and tries to come to terms with the fact that sometimes ambition just isn’t worth it, despite a lifetime of stories that have asserted the exact opposite. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.