Dear Lord Novitiate is a bore.
Writer/director Margaret Betts commits the same cardinal mistakes as many first-time filmmakers working on their debut narrative feature: She can’t seem to decide what stories she’s trying to tell, fails at sufficiently interconnecting them either narratively or thematically, and doesn’t recognize the most intriguing aspects deserving of her nonetheless talented focus.
Much of the movie chronicles the process of becoming a nun right before the latest round of ecumenical reforms in the early 1960s. Though a widespread lack of familiarity with the subject makes it inherently interesting, Betts clings to her background in documentary filmmaking a bit too much. Her approach could’ve used less documenting and more humanity, particularly in regards to probing the psychology of what compels young women to pursue this lifestyle. She often relies on shallow reads of her characters’ complexities, communicating clear points in too-tidy scenes, forsaking the intended reality elsewhere.
Granted, the stiff supporting ensemble does her material no favors by overly-emphasizing the more on-the-nose parts of her screenplay. The only supporting actor who turns in a non-stuffy performance is Morgan Saylor (so impressive in last year’s White Girl). Unfortunately, she instead goes the opposite way, overacting to such a degree that she looks awkward in comparison to the excessive restraint around her.
Every once in a while, Betts returns to the topic that should’ve been the primary one explored: Understanding, in all its many fascinating layers, the affectionate relationships between nuns and Jesus, and what role sexuality plays in them. Given America’s Puritanical roots, digging deep here could’ve really shed some light on how the United States’ Christian foundation influences the country’s gender relations, obviously a hot-button issue at the moment. Betts flirts with this idea through the subtext of her precisely-chosen moments of nudity, which symbolically represent the main character’s developing conception of sin.
Novitiate desperately needs more of this depth, which the sterile cinematography rarely communicates. The vivid performances from the three leads – Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”), Julianne Nicholson (theatre!), and Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo (The Figher) turning in a Full Metal Jacket/Whiplash (depending on your age) drill instructor impression – do not sufficiently elevate this otherwise snooze-worthy affair.