Reporting from the Denver Film Festival.

There’s nothing soft about Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman). She’s only a freshman, but’s she working to graduate this spring. It’s how Alex does things. She isn’t the smartest, most talented, most athletically gifted, or any of that stuff, but she is the hardest worker by a long shot. And her secret to hard work: Ignore absolutely everything else until you accomplish your goal.

And she does. She ignores healthy relationships, healthy eating, healthy sleep, deep healthy breaths—she hasn’t time for any of that. She takes her physics tests three times, four times—god knows how many times she would take them if there weren’t a time limit. “Physics is my weakest subject,” she tells the TA (Dilone) as an explanation. “But, you’re a physics major,” the TA responds.

Square peg meet round hole. Physics isn’t Alex’s strong suit, and neither is rowing. What an unforgiving sport to arbitrarily decide to take up, but that’s what Alex does. She pushes herself to total exhaustion and rows until the oars mark her palms with stigmata. Everyone else on the crew fears her because they have no idea what she is capable of. Only one even so much as talks to her, Jamie (Amy Forsyth), but Alex still sees her as competition.

The Novice, from writer/director Lauren Hadaway, refers to both Alex and the non-varsity rowing team. It’s a movie with a shallow focus of Alex’s mentally ill drive to be the best. For what good, for what greater purpose? I’m sure there was an answer once, but Alex forgot it long ago. Her face betrays no pleasure, no elation as she pursues the top. It’s ugly, twisted with self-loathing and disdain for others. It’s a miracle she hasn’t discovered true destruction through substance or others, though she’s still young.

At times The Novice feels like a staring match between Fuhrman and Hadaway. Neither blinks. The camera stays so close to Alex the rest of the world becomes fuzzy. It puts you in her headspace and refuses freedom or a breath of fresh air, no matter how unpleasant and cringe-worthy things get. And it gets there.

The Novice is playing the Denver Film Festival on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7:15 p.m. and on Sunday, Nov. 14 at 4:15 p.m.