What makes a young woman choose to be a nun? In Margaret Betts’ revelatory “Novitiate,” which traces the journey of the starry-eyed Cathleen, it begins in parochial school when a nun explains that the Catholic faith is different from all others because it’s built on the twin pillars of love and sacrifice. Combine that with the sense of peace that she gains from the church, and boom: This is a lovesick teenage girl, and Cathleen’s beloved is no less than God.
Largely set in 1964 and 1965, just as the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II) was beginning to roll out its new decrees for the way the church should be run, “Novitiate” follows Cathleen (a breakout Margaret Qualley) first as a postulate, then as the titular novitiate, which is regarded as a grueling training period in which young nuns “learn to be perfect.” Her mother (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) is horrified by Cathleen’s choice, scoffing at her profession and often (loudly) questioning what she did to make her child want to become a nun, of all things.
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But Cathleen is steadfast in her faith, and her choice to join a strict convent led by a vicious Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) seems like a natural one for her. Still, what looks like a clear path is anything but, and “Novitiate” gracefully charts Cathleen’s journey and the many emotions that course through it. Both introspective and entertaining, Betts never forgets that her young nuns are still teenage girls, and “Novitiate” rings as true as any other film about coming of age.
Despite its 123-minute runtime, the film is impeccably edited and packed with such rich storytelling that it never lags. The film is Betts’ feature-length narrative debut (she’s got a documentary, “The Carrier,” and a short under her belt already) and it’s a strong vehicle for showing off her formidable talents (and those of Qualley, who steals every frame).
Leo does predictably strong work with an occasionally overwritten part, with Betts doing her damnedest to explain away Reverend Mother’s more nefarious bents. The script leans on Vatican II as the reason why she’s so unhinged, and her rages become showier as the film winds on. Ultimately, the film stumbles in its conclusion with a strange and sudden veer into more lascivious territory in an otherwise well-crafted film. It’s a small crisis in a film built on them, but it’s not enough to dim an otherwise shining testament to the power of belief.
“Novitiate” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.