Some of the Young Embrace God and Country

Growing up with a Protestant minister for a father, I learned very little about Catholicism. I knew Christianity — the Dutch-reformed kind. Catholics? We didn’t like them and, supposedly, we weren’t like them. Now some of my best friends are Catholics. But as I write about a deeply Catholic film I know that I know next to nothing about the magical, brutal world portrayed in Novitate.

Still, I do know a good film when I see it, and this is a quiet work of art both modest and powerful. Capturing a longing for God on film can’t be easy: it’s an inner search, after all. But director Maggie Betts manages to do it. She has captured what it means to seek Him. Not only that, she conveys how Vatican II sowed confusion and sadness in the early 1960s as it upended the Roman community of faith.

An American girl named Cathleen is raised an only child in a home about to be broken. As her father leaves while her mother tries to survive, Cathleen finds religion in her teenage years. To the horror of her non-religious mom she decides to enter an austere convent as a 17-year-old. She will devote her life to God.

Her mother doesn’t understand, but we do. The girl is desperately looking for community and meaning, neither of which exist in her daily life. As Cathleen, the young actress Margaret Qualley conveys the joy this novitiate — trainee, if you will — finds in the dark silence of the convent. Stripped of worldly belongings and concerns she dives into her faith. Meeting young women like herself and Reverend Mother (a brilliantly severe Melissa Leo), Cathleen struggles with new questions about the church, herself, sexuality, and her family. I found it a beautiful struggle, earnest at first, then looser. Even though there is little conversation or action in Novitate, I was anxious about the unfolding of Cathleen’s quest. Spiritual seekers of all faiths may find comfort and truth in this film — they will feel seen and understood.

It’s hard to believe this beautiful movie is the directorial debut of Betts, who also wrote the script. Maybe it’s her lineage. Betts is the daughter of Roland W. Betts, a New York real estate developer and film producer who is close to President George W. Bush. I’m not sure about Maggie’s politics, but her approach to religion suggests empathy, sensitivity, and the ability to understand and convey complexity. I’m looking forward to her next work.

Still speaking as an outsider, I enjoyed Thank You For Your Service. Like the Catholic Church, the world of the military is mostly foreign to me. I support and admire those who serve to protect our freedoms and these United States. I am grateful for their courage and selflessness. But I do not pretend to understand their world. That said, I can see how this drama with Miles Teller may capture what it means to be a young veteran returning home from Iraq.

Teller plays Adam, a good man with a lovely wife (a strong Haley Bennett) and a toddler. Having led a platoon in Iraq he is, once again, informally taking charge when he and three fellow vets battle their demons and the VA bureaucracy back home. This little band of young men doesn’t ask for much, but some medical help and a job would be nice. Their trouble finding either one is not a great sign.

How we treat the volunteers in uniform who fight so we don’t have to — it’s a pretty good indicator of us as a country. Neither the anti-military left nor the disinterested complacent class come off well in this measure. We just don’t seem to care; the fight for safe spaces appears larger to many young people than the fights overseas, the battles where Adam Schumann and his friends take on Islamists, getting hurt physically and mentally. Thank You for Your Service makes you laugh, cry, and feel for these men. We can only hope it also opens a few eyes about the postwar reality of Adam’s generation.

In the production notes screenwriter and director Jason Hall talks about the veterans he portrays, and the vets who helped him shoot a truthful film. “They empowered me to paint a personal picture of their sacrifice, in hopes that it may lead to a deeper understanding of the unthinkable sacrifice that all our veterans have made in the service of this country,” he said.

Amen. I think that, after writing American Sniper for Clint Eastwood, Hall has done it again. Teller, too: after showing deference for firefighters with his recent role in Only the Brave, he emerges as a strong American character once more. Together they do create understanding of the sacrifices made for this great country.

Novitate and Thank You for Your Service are rated R. Both movies open October 27.

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