In Novitiate, Tennessee teen Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) who's never been to church and whose mother (Julianne Nicholson) is a non-believer enters a convent, determined to become a nun.
She is, we're told, a young woman hungry for love, desperate to believe in it, and the proximate reasons are clear enough — her unfaithful father has quit the family and the parade of men in her mother's life offers consecutive examples of the fragile and impermanent nature of temporal love.
Cathleen is after something more profound. She wants to be in love with God, with Jesus, a goal she pursues with the ardor of a teenage girl, but there is something substantial too in her quest.
For Cathleen, regimented life in the convent gives her the structure and peace she did not have at home. She's suited to the rigors of convent life, and the ample time for prayer complements her naturally contemplative mind. The screenplay, by director Maggie Betts, takes Cathleen's religious dimension seriously. A different and less interesting movie might have framed Cathleen's desire to become a nun as an adolescent spite — a way of punishing her mother for a broken marriage and a storm-tossed adolescence.
But Cathleen's affinity for the spiritual is innate and sincere — she's spotted by her Catholic school teachers at a young age, and by the sisters at the convent, who judge her to be one of the most promising candidates, even though she is the only young woman who was not baptized Catholic. Even the fearsome Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) is secretly impressed.
When Cathleen enters the convent, the film pivots strangely to the Reverend Mother's point of view. Novitiate is set in the late 1960s, the time of Vatican II reforms, which Leo's character resists to the point of insubordination, prompting a visit from the archbishop, played with customary small-role vividness by Dennis O'Hare. The reforms change what Reverend Mother had considered to be her privileged and personal relationship with God. New guidelines leave her feeling lost, betrayed, and rebellious. There is an unexpected and moving scene of Reverend Mother delivering to her peers the news of the Vatican II reforms, during which they hear that their special status of brides of Christ is now diminished.
Reverend Mother transfers some of her anger to young women like Cathleen, and the movie takes on the overtones of a boot camp — the hazing, the wash-outs, the abusive tests of endurance. There are times when Novitiate tests the viewer's endurance — it's a beautifully shot movie, but it runs more than two hours, and lingering compositions of silent nuns and novitiates start to feel unsupported by the story. And Cathleen's arc, initially front and center, starts to feel outweighed by the all-in performance of Oscar-winner Leo.