Film Fest 919 Day 5: Randall Okita's 'See for Me' & Lauren Hadaway's 'The Novice'

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A girl in sunglasses leans against a car window
Skylar Davenport as SOPHIE in SEE FOR ME

See for Me, directed by Randall Okita (BFI)

This well-crafted home invasion thriller features a headstrong blind main character looking for solitude and easy cash during a cat-sitting gig. See for Me feels like a descendent of the 1962 feature film Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn. That film subverted viewer expectations -- the "helpless blind person" defeats the invaders by using her blindness as a strength. Okita, along with story writers Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue update the formula, adding technology and the main character's own internal conflicts for new depth. Excellent use of lighting and cinematic techniques keep viewers in the know and enthralled.

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) works as a house sitter for high-end clients wanting the best for their pets. It also gives her reprieve from her helicopter mom, who hovers around Sophie worrying for her safety. Sophie has other motives, which we later discover. But when her latest job lands in her in a house targeted for break-in by a trio of safe robbers, Sophie uses all her resources to thwart these adversaries. Like Susy in Wait Until Dark, no one suspects Sophie to present a threat because of her blindness.

What sets See for Me apart is the attention it gives to Sophie and the way she approaches obstacles. She despises the pity and enthusiastic help people offer when meeting her. She wants to choose when and how to get help. She refuses all offers from the homeowner to give her a full tour of the house. Instead, once the homeowner leaves, Sophie chooses to phone her friend, Cam, so that he can help her navigate the house using the camera phone. Later, her mom phones to suggest Sophie download the See for Me iPhone app, which connects you to a contracted assistant to be your eyes. In this way, Sophie meets Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a former army vet with a skill in first-person shooter games, who plays a vital role throughout the story. Sophie's past as a top skier provides extra clues, as well, to an inner battle she works through during her ordeal.

Skyler Davenport as SOPHIE in SEE FOR ME
Most of the story takes place in a spacious house in a remote location. Production designer Ciara Vernon deserves all praise in the look and feel of this home with a view. The expertly edited camera angles allow viewers to navigate the house along with Sophie and get to know its halls and corners. The lighting crew also get a good workout in following the action from day to nighttime, casting just-right shadows that up the creep factor. At one point, the main lights shut off and the red security lights turn off and on with a steady pulse. It's a pure cinematic moment.

From start to finish, viewers looking for an outside-the-box thriller will appreciate See for Me.

Final score: 4 out of 5

A Girl rows by herself on a lake
Isabelle Furhman as DALL in THE NOVICE

The Novice, directed by Lauren Hadaway (IFC)

The Novice is Black Swan or Whiplash for the rowing team -- a disturbing look at the need to be best that supersedes love of the game.

Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) joins crew team at her college. She's new, so she joins the novice team, along with Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth) and a handful of other underclassmen. Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) asks all of the novices to share why they decided to join the team. Everyone has a chance to share their reason, except Dall. The answer to that question remains a mystery until much later in the story.

From the beginning, we understand that Dall wants to be the best. Teammate Brill quickly establishes herself as the MVP on the novice team, but Brill also has a motive: she needs a scholarship to afford school, and rowing appears to be her best bet. Brill plans to be good enough to get promoted to the varsity team. Dall make it her mission to keep up with Brill, and then later, be better than Brill. But as time goes, Dall's need to be best becomes an obsession that casts a shadow over her life.

The sport of rowing has always been fascinating to watch, but it's one of the least covered on the silver screen. We see a few fleeting frames in Dead Poet's Society and The Social Network, and a few feature films exist. It's considered one of the playgrounds of the elite; unlike basketball and baseball, it's not a common sport that everyone tries as part of school P.E. Few understand the physical toll rowing crew takes on the body. Injuries can happen in almost any region of the body. The Novice attempts to show viewers the brutal reality in a visceral way.

The Novice uses expressionistic techniques to immerse us in Dall's journey, like extreme close-up camera angles, surreal lighting, and out-of-time midcentury music. This shows how Dall views each of her victories as epic events worthy of public celebration.

A group of girls faces out at a gym class
Isabelle Fuhrman as DALL in THE NOVICE
The viewer experiences a dynamic journey during Dall's climb up the ladder of success. Everyone loves an underdog story. Dall starts as the classic underdog. No matter how hard she works, Brill seems to have a more innate talent. Dall begins to work extra hours, even during vacations to up her game. And we celebrate. That's how we are supposed to feel when our hero improves and reaches a new threshold. But over time, it's harder and harder to accept her choices as healthy.

Dall's journey of obsession keeps the viewer hanging on by a thread, captivated by her every move. While it's horrible to witness, there's no denying our draw to her one-of-a-kind psyche. Lauren Hadaway is able to build empathy for this twisted and driven character, which makes her a director to watch.

Final score: 4.5 out of 5