With Margaret Betts’ blistering debut, Academy Award-winner Leo could earn herself another invite to the Oscars

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A group of nuns-to-be get the schooling of a lifetime in “Novitiate,” a harsh, searing religious drama which revolves around a hellfire performance from a volcanic Melissa Leo.

Leo’s not the star of the film, but tryToronto telling her that. Her Reverend Mother is as ferocious and barking a character as we’ve seen on screen all year. Put her up against the superfriends in “Justice League,” and Batman and his crew would cower in fear.

Margaret Qualley plays Cathleen Harris, a 17-year-old who enters the convent to become a nun. There she’s joined by a handful of other young women looking to become nuns, including Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell), Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor) and Sister Emily (Liana Liberato). They’re all under the tutelage of Leo’s Reverend Mother, who is as forgiving as a steel beam.

“Novitiate” plays a bit like “Top Gun” for nuns; call it “Top Nun.” Writer-director Margaret Betts, marking her feature debut, gives voice to the young women and their life decision, which in many cases alienated family (Cathleen has an extremely strained relationship with her mother, played by a frantic, helpless Julianne Nicholson). “We were women in love,” Cathleen says in voiceover. And that’s it.

“Novitiate” unfolds against the backdrop of Vatican II, the radical relaxation of the strict rules imposed upon the Catholic church in the early 1960s. Reverend Mother doesn’t take kindly to the change, and the movie is just as much about her resistance to the evolving world around her as it is her molding of the young lives in the name of God. Leo’s performance leaves more than a mark; it leaves scorched earth.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

‘Novitiate’

GRADE: B+

Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity

Running time: 123 minutes

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