One of the reasons why I find Megan Abbott’s thrillers so captivating is that each time she dives into a character’s obsession – cheerleading, gymnastics, ballet – I feel like a scientist on a journey into a field that is utterly alien to me. It’s the same, on a less theoretical and poetic level, when I watch sports, or read accounts of mountaineering, cave exploration or cursed and doomed expeditions to the North or South Pole – that kind of obsession paired with physical suffering is utterly strange and foreign to me, compelling and scary because I am as far from it in spirit as from space travel.
All you have to know about Isabelle Fuhrman’s Alex Dall, the protagonist of Lauren Hadaway’s long-form debut, is that she is majoring in physics because it is her weakest subject. She isn’t spending hours to perfect her quizzes, torturing her TA, because she loves the subject: She’s doing it because something inside of herself drives her to eliminate any perceived weakness. Starting college, she joins the university’s rowing team – a sport that is new to her – and immediately, and obsessively, begins setting herself targets to become better, the best, at it. With the goal in mind to join the highly competitive varsity team, a feat few freshmen accomplish, she trains until she vomits, until her hands bleed, until she can barely walk. She forgoes any camaraderie that may come from a team sport, and instead sets off by herself, eventually alienating even her only remaining friend on the team after months of making her think that she is so obsessed with the sport because she needs the scholarship (when in fact, due to her academic achievements in high school, she is on a full scholarship).
The only part of her life that for a time buffers the sheer physical body horror that soon begins to ensue is a budding relationship with the aforementioned TA (played by Dilone), a relationship that is portrayed with more tenderness and a surprising amount of mutual care than the rest of the film would have you expect. But regardless, Dani misses the signs of how far gone Alex truly is, especially once she gets obsessed with seat racing, which determines what each team member actually contributes to the success of the boat. As much as the other women on the team care about the sport (there are strong performances here all around), none come close to the level of obsession that Alex showcases, and frustration over setbacks (and perceived unfairness when the other girls team up against her) drive Alex (back to) self-harm, as if she is trying to literally eradicate any soft spots that are left.
There are moments in this film where it wasn’t so much reminded of Whiplash (another film about obsession that manifests in physical damage, that Lauren Hadaway sound edited) or Megan Abbott , but the French horror film Martyrs (which I liked but will never watch again). There is an idea here that all that physical suffering , the extremity of the self-abuse (like the blood infection, slowly makings its way from an untreated blister on the hand like a stigmata, up the arm towards the heart), will eventually lead to some kind of catharsis, some kind of exaltation. In the most memorable scenes of the film, Alex experiences something akin to visions, to absolute focus, when she rows, and in those moments, she is utterly alone in the dark, completely thrown back into herself. Maybe for a second in those moments, you’d be inclined to think that all of this pain could be worth it.
2021, directed by Lauren Hadaway, starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Chantelle Bishop, Sage Irvine, Jeni Ross.