Movie Review - Novitiate

Margaret Betts has a feature debut, which garnered her a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. She demonstrates here the beginning of what will hopefully be a great career for not only this woman director but this woman of color director. Of course, we've had comedies like Sister Act (1992) and even this year The Little Hours, which have focused on nuns at various times, but rarely has there been a dramatic feature about nuns in a convent. Yes, there was Doubt (2008), but that film was more about a priest than it was about the nuns and their relationship to the church and to God singularly. Betts' film explores that topic with more focus, as well as with aplomb and deftness.

Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers and The Nice Guys) stars as Cathleen Harris, a teenage girl who when she comes of age decides to join a convent and become a nun in 1964. Due to a free scholarship, she first attends a Catholic high school where she's charmed by a nun who encourages her to follow on the same path. She's lonely and a shy girl who takes solace in the so-called love of Jesus Christ, but eventually she begins to wonder if that so-called, one-sided, non-corporal love is enough for the rest of her life.

Melissa Leo (The Fighter and Frozen River) also stars as Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, the head of the convent where Cathleen arrives. She's been a nun for 40 years. While there haven't been too many films set exclusively at a convent, nuns as characters in movies have some frequency and in many ways, Marie is the stereotypical, stern and strict taskmaster, as well as the middle-age nun that has been a trope in films for years. One such example that came to mind is The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002).

Leo's performance does bring a level of nuance and menace that one normally doesn't get and that is perhaps on par with something like J. K. Simmons' character in Whiplash (2014). Unfortunatley, Betts never truly unleashes Marie as Damien Chazelle unleashed his character. This is perhaps a good thing that Betts doesn't lean into the crazy, which keeps this film very grounded in a way that Whiplash wasn't. Yet, it also makes this movie not as fun or as dangerous as it could have been. As such, the movie can be a tad boring.

There are some pleasures to have here. What's at issue is new rules handed down by the Vatican with which Marie disagrees. Besides being what Marie has traditionally done for her whole life, the movie never makes clear why she's so obstinate to the specific rules the Vatican changes, or how she thinks it changes her relationship to Christ.

The movie pivots and then all of a sudden it becomes about Cathleen discovering her same-sex attraction. The movie brings it up too late for it to have the kind of impact that Betts perhaps wants. Betts hints at a lesbian couple earlier in the film, but with specific regard to Cathleen's attractions, it almost comes as a surprise, or maybe I just didn't read the signs. The recent Battle of the Sexes did a better job of establishing the lesbian attraction earlier.

Nevertheless, Qualley's performance is tremendous. She has a bit of a Kristen Stewart vibe. Her struggle and eventual crisis of faith comes through so strongly from her. Speaking of which, Julianne Nicholson who plays Nora Harris, the mother to Cathleen, is also tremendous in her brief, screen time.

Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.

In Select Theaters.


  1. High quality directing and writing by Betts. Tremendous performances by Qualley, Leo, Nicholson, Dayan and the other actresses as young ladies in the Novitiate process. A lovely film visually as well. Such a powerfully affecting portrayal of what a toll such compromise, zealotry and sacrifice takes on human beings.


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