Margaret Qualley in Novitiate (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

The debut feature by Maggie Betts begins slowly, with a voice-over that serves as an erratic love letter to God. Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a girl raised without religion, becomes devout after getting a full ride at a Catholic school, and after high school graduation, she heads straight to the nunnery. Since the movie is set before and during Vatican II, which initiated reforms to modernize the church in 1964, Cathleen’s faith will be questioned. Oh, and there’s also a feverish lesbian sex scene.

Truthfully, Novitiate is a crawl of a movie. It becomes intermittently dramatic as fully fledged nuns yell at and reprimand teenage girls who have entered the Sisters of the Beloved Rose monastery, in seclusion from their families. The rigorous training is meant to make them question their desire to be a part of the Church, to make certain this is the life they want. Vows of silence are taken with strict rules, harsh punishments are given to those who disobey, and no physical contact can be made.

The film features a large cast of women who have complex feelings and are placed in a difficult situation that tests their livelihoods. Cathleen’s mother (Julianne Nicholson) has essentially lost a child, since she now needs permission to see Cathleen; the abbess (Melissa Leo) has unlimited power but feels threatened because of the upcoming changes; and Cathleen tries to figure out what she really wants. In the ensemble, all are well-delineated characters, even when briefly seen on screen. Facial expression and body language convey perfectly what these women want without saying out it at loud. Much of the story is told silently through action, and the silence speaks volumes.

Yet there’s a lack of building interest until the very end. It was well past the halfway mark when the pace picked up. Once Cathleen and a newly arrived novice, Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), a quiet young woman from a less strict convent, scandalously touch hands, the drama begins to move. (To want a forbidden romance within this starkly religious setting is to want air; it’s only natural.) Pressure builds for the last 30 minutes, but the abrupt ending will leave viewers wishing for more.

Every actor is passionate and strong, easily bringing a woman’s pain across. However, the script is lackluster and predictable. Perhaps there’s only so much one can do with nuns. Questioning faith, forbidden romance, and so on, it seems as though it has all been done before. The writing at times felt like a dramatic play written for high schoolers. Perhaps that’s the intention because so many of these girls are 17 and 18. Also the dialogue felt more modern than from the early ’60s. Nothing was millennial slang, but the attitude of these young girls felt very 21st century.

Though every Lonely Girl trope is projected on the young women who are constantly being tested, I found myself hurting more for the older nuns when they hear of the life-changing reforms of Vatican II. Their identities have now been stripped and changed. Scenes where the politics of the church are involved have passion, but for the most part, the writing felt like a ride down a pothole-filled highway. It gets you where you need to go, but it’s bumpy and long.

But does have Novitiate have lasting appeal? The short answer? No. The long answer? Maybe. With romance-starved lesbians swapping lists of movies where women so much as look at each other longer than five seconds, somebody’s going to recommend the hell out of this movie to everybody she knows.

Written and Directed by Margaret Betts
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 123 min. Rated R
With Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, and Denis O’Hare