Novitiate (2017), Film Review from the 33rd Annual Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Margaret “Maggie” Betts, starring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, and Morgan Saylor.
Though coming-of-age stories have been a staple of film for decades, this simply stunning debut from first-time director Margaret “Maggie” Betts renews faith in the genre and manages to give it new life.
The film follows the incredibly sincere Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who joins the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960’s as a novitiate (“novice”) nun-in-training. Her abusive, dysfunctional home-life and decidedly anti-religious mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), gave rise to a desperate longing for peace and meaning, and the life of a nun resonates deeply with her.
Pursuing what she believes to be her calling, she joins the other novitiates and begins training under the tutelage of Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), a fairly young nun who tests the limits of the more traditional Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). When the Vatican convenes the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965 and threatens to transform the life of nuns forever, the already-domineering Reverend Mother begins to exercise increasing amounts of control over the young nuns, hoping to inculcate her traditional beliefs that are threatened by the very man who leads their church.
The film is surprisingly cinematic and feels incredibly accomplished for a first-time director on a low-budget and without a committed distributor. Indeed, it feels effortless to watch the rising tensions unfold on screen between intergenerational women all committed to the same cause and the same God.
Indeed, not once did I look down at my watch. Immediately afterward, and throughout the duration of the festival, I heard comments from “real people” (i.e., not critics/press) describing their admiration for the film – a great sign for a competition film.
The film’s performances are unmatched, and the relatively-unknown Margaret Qualley (the daughter of Andie McDowell) delivers a performance that serves quite a formidable match for the downright unrecognizable Melissa Leo. Indeed, Leo’s is an awards-worthy performance; at times emotionally-touching and sincere, while at other times frightening and forceful, she manages to engender sympathy for a rather domineering but deeply hurt and mourning character. Her love for the church is clear, but so is her defiance and sense of responsibility toward the convent.
The film’s most effective and mesmerizing scenes take place in the weekly meetings held by the Reverend Mother as she demands the young novitiates step forward into a circle to confess their imperfections. The abusive corrections inflicted by the Reverend Mother challenge a collective sense of decency that the younger generation insists mustn’t be lost in a life and devotion of being married to Christ. Rather, they argue, it is because of their religious convictions that a collective sense of decency must be cultivated and celebrated. It’s a natural and riveting setup that pays off magically.
This isn’t an overly-religious film, nor does it attempt to proselytize or convert the viewer. Rather, its themes are universally-applicable: when do we continue to pursue something and when do we choose to let go? Do we try to change the system from within or are our efforts better served by walking away from something that no longer serves us? When is it appropriate to challenge authority (as the Reverend Mother does to the Vatican and the novitiates do to the Reverend Mother) and when are we overstepping our bounds?
Do yourself a favor and place this film near the top of your 2017 must-see list.
Novitiate is screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the competitive U.S. Dramatic competition category and has been acquired by Sony Pictures for an undisclosed sum for a planned 2017 theatrical release.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute