Middleburg Film Review: ‘Novitiate’ Is Deeply Moving Showcasing a Vibrant Female Ensemble

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2017 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: Ambitious and thematically striking, Margaret Betts makes her feature writing and directing debut with the marvelously absorbing “Novitiate.” Flaunting an all-star cast of impeccable actresses, Betts intrigues the viewer to surrender to the film’s intoxicating tale of obedience and self-discovery. It’s one of the year’s most vivid dramas.

Novitiate” is set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II.  During this time, a young woman named Sister Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley) is in training to become a nun.  She begins to struggle with issues of faith, the changing church, and sexuality, all while being led by the iron fist of Reverend Mother (played by Melissa Leo).

Margaret Qualley, the daughter of film star Andie MacDowell, creates a vividly unique and utterly breathtaking performance. She hides behind the eyes of a woman, desperate to find her way. Encapsulating the essence of blindly following, her devotion to the Lord is profoundly felt as Sister Catherine looks for deeper meaning and connection inside the walls of the convent. She is easily one of the year’s breakout stars.

Melissa Leo, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for “The Fighter,” is as good as she’s ever been. In what easily is her most daring and daunting turn, she moves her co-stars into pure consternation, as everyone is just paralyzed by every frame they share with her. This performance is one that the Academy should heavily “consider” (see what I did there?).

Betts’ film seems so much more significant than itself thanks to her thoughtful and ambitious script and direction. She slithers through the lives of multiple women, all with their own distinct and captivating story, even in minimal screen time. Julianne Nicholson, as always, is exceptionally seasoned while Dianna Agron‘s soft yet ferociously felt Sister Mary Grace is a quiet pillar of the film’s core.

Kat Westergaard‘s luminescent camera work is steady and felt while Susan E. Morse‘s editing is sensationally assembled. With 30 years passing since Morse’s Oscar-nomination for “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a citation for Betts’ film would be a welcomed and deserved addition.

Novitiate” is a treat, produced to the highest caliber of filmmaking. Margaret Betts emerges as one of the most fabulous discoveries in years. Showing an exceptional eye for emotion, her concentration on the moment, in a film surrounded by women both in front and behind the camera, Betts will be around for some time.

“Novitiate” screened at the Middleburg Film Festival, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and opens in theaters on Oct. 27 in limited release.

GRADE: (★½)

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ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
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