Flirting with greatness before ultimately succumbing to mediocrity, Margaret Betts’ Novitiate starts off strong with clear, confident framing and camerawork and what appears to be an in-depth look at a secretive corner of society.
After the strong opening in a nunnery at the advent of the Vatican II reforms, the leap back a decade to see how 17-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, HBO’s The Leftovers) came to be a prospective servant of Catholicism is likewise promising.
With her immature single mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County) failing to provide a stable home life in rural late-‘50s Tennessee, Cathleen finds her place at the local Catholic school and establishes one of the film’s great dramas with Nora’s incredulity at her daughter’s decision to devote herself to God.
The cruel regime of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) also holds significant intrigue, especially as she dares hold out against the church’s progressive changes, interpreting the new practices as mere suggestions.
But while consequences for this stubborn leader seem eminent, they never quite come to atomic fruition and taking her mounting aggression out on the young Sisters soon grows repetitive.
Further diluting Novitiate are the little rebellions that Mother’s behavior inspires among the trainees, nearly all of which feel forced, though the relationships established among the young women and with the nuns that come and go (especially Glee's Dianna Agron as a tragically sympathetic one) keep the darkness from completely swallowing the light.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)