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Tribeca 2021: 'The Novice', 'Italian Studies' | Isabelle Fuhrman, Vanessa Kirby | Capsule Reviews

Isabelle Fuhrman in a boat, Vanessa Kirby on a street
The Novice (L), Italian Studies (R)


At this stream you won't be rowing the boat gently as Lauren Hadaway's feature debut The Novice, one which she wrote and co-edited along with her directorial duties, introduces us to Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a new college student who joins the school's rowing team. A story about obsession and testing your own limits, Alex sets out to triumph over all of her competition, no matter the cost, whether that's her personal relationships with girlfriend Dani (Dilone) and teammate/friend Jamie (Amy Forsyth) or damage to her own body.

Much like achieving success in your particular sport, the film also needs a properly committed central performance in order to rise above the waterline and that is what you get with Fuhrman as she is fierce in every way. Subtle differences in posture, conveying disorientation with her eyes, even the rowing itself feels taxing to the viewer in me (real rowers can speak more to the authenticity, however)—everything is there from the body language to the line delivery so I imagine we'll be hearing more about it when it gets out to general audiences. Hadaway's strengths come through in the post-production output as the editing by co-editor Nathan Nugent and her is relentlessly measured which suit the thriller elements perfectly, also finding good moments to highlight the best of Todd Martin's sweeping camera work and Alex Weston's ruthless orchestral pieces.

Beyond just the score, even more victories happen in the sound design which compliments Alex's disorientation by throwing in unnatural sounding clips for the settings and playing around with pitch shifts, all which are then balanced out in the exciting sound mix. Only a couple times are there clumsier moments as some music choices don't fit the scenes all that well. One other thing which might be just a personal grievance right now (this can be seen in several movies and shows lately) is the storm at the end; it came off comical and overdramatic, plus it just looked ridiculous with lightning striking every two seconds.

Overall, The Novice had even more potential which is the frustrating part as you'd have wanted to know more about Alex. One scene that takes a lot away from that is one including self-harm because if we are purposefully distanced from Alex when she is most vulnerable, then why are we in her perhaps most personal space as she is removing a part of herself? In the context of this story, it could make more sense for the audience to imagine it or just be shown some visuals that suggest it as we do in fact see the physical toll on her in the film's last shot.

Smileys: Isabelle Fuhrman, editing, sound design, sound mixing

Frowneys: Some issues with ending and soundtrack


[Update, December 15th, 2021: Thoughts about a possible re-edit have been edited as the film is set to open in cinemas. This is to respect the filmmakers' vision whatever that may end up being.]

Isabelle Fuhrman in a boat on the water
IFC Films


Vanessa Kirby stars in director-writer Adam Leon's latest undertaking, romantically named Italian Studies as an author Alina Reynolds who we find floating around the streets of New York City seemingly unaware who she is, where she's been or what she is up to. She ends up hanging with a group of teenagers after running into one of them in Simon (Simon Brickner). Alina and the group cruise around the city at night from place to place as she tries to make sense of her surroundings.

Something to be wary about is that the movie falls more into the ''vibing and exploring'' category of films rather than being driven by any kind of plot. Sometimes they can be truly comforting at best and painfully excruciating at their worst, Leon's effort however does have some parts that really support the atmosphere so it doesn't fall in the latter category. Brett Jutkiewicz's cinematography turns out to be the most surprising as the mix of neon signs, practical warm lighting and dark streets always give you something to devour while his tracking of actors in the streets is not only seamless but he also finds interesting angles constantly. Composer Nicholas Britell supports the images at points with the same creativity which helps you engage with Alina almost until the end.

What makes these vibe-y movies really captivating when they're good is some kind of euphoric or distressing feeling they give you, Italian Studies' downfall is that it really doesn't do that. Alina's story is extremely hard to track even knowing the genre we're playing with and it never asks deep questions that the concept of memories and losing yourself offer. Much because of that, the movie can't even uphold the brisk 79 minutes runtime and you feel like it could've worked better as a 30-45 minutes short. It had the chance to dig deeper or create a more mesmerising mystery instead of leaving you cold and alone in a New York City alley.

Smileys: Cinematography

Frowneys: Story, structure


Vanessa Kirby on a street at night
Magnolia Pictures

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