January 31, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Novitiate,” “The Incredible Jessica James” & “Marjorie Prime”


NOVITIATE (Sony Classics):  It’s not clear how much of an audience there can be for a dark drama set amid the physical and psychological hardships of a pre-Vatican II midwestern abbey, but Margaret Betts’s Novitiate provides an utterly convincing insight into that world.  (Betts won a “breakthrough” directing award at the festival.)  The story centers on Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a teen who leaves the household of her lax single mother (Julianne Nicholson) for a much harsher maternal figure in the person of the abbey’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) and for the promise of eternal marriage to God.  Initially, Cathleen longs for the discipline and focus of the church as it existed in the early 1960s, but things become more complicated as she sees the effects of the rules not just on herself but on other aspiring nuns (they include Dianna Agron, Maddie Hasson, Liana Liberato, and Morgan Saylor), and as she develops emotional ties to the slightly older Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan).  Although Novitiate often feels as though it’s been based on a literary work, it’s an original script, and its tight adoption of Cathleen’s viewpoint leaves some of the other characters shortchanged.  Nevertheless, this is a powerful and visually impressive piece, with a superbly conflicted performance by Qualley at its center.  Dayan makes a striking impression, and Leo conveys the fact that as awful as the Mother Superior is, all of her actions come from a place of profound belief.  Denis O’Hare, in a brief role, goes one-on-one with Leo with marvelous results.  It’s Nicholson, though, who gets the movie’s rebellious set-piece sequence, and with it the audience’s affections.  The beautifully dark-toned photography is by Kat Westergaard.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES (Netflix):  James Strouse’s conventionally enjoyable comedy was written specifically for Jessica Williams (Strouse had worked with her on his People Places Things), and she gives the star performance that was intended.  Jessica James is an all-around dynamo, an aspiring playwright who teaches theater to public school students (she doesn’t do the latter simply to make ends meet–the’s passionately committed to her students). Meanwhile,  she labors to get over a break-up, an undertaking helped by her BFF (Noel Wells) and the entry into her life of an affable app creator (Chris O’Dowd).  The stakes aren’t terribly high here, nor is there much suspense about how it will all shake out, but Williams is adorable and funny, and Strouse, a Sundance favorite, has provided material that allows her to shine.  Strouse seems to have been seeking a mainstream success for some time with the basketball movie The Winning Season and divorce dramedy People Places Things, and Incredible Jessica James may get there on the strength of Williams’s charisma and its undemanding feel-good vibe.

MARJORIE PRIME (no distrib):  Among the awards Sundance hands out every year is the Alfred P. Sloan prize, which goes to a feature with some kind of science aspect to its story.  (Previous winners include Primer, Another Earth and The Stanford Prison Experiment.)  This year’s winner was Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, based on a play by Jordan Harrison itself short-listed for the Pulitzer.  It’s a chamber drama set in a near-future where interactive holograms of the dead are used as sort of emotional service animals to the elderly, infirm or grief-stricken, preserving memories and providing comfort.  The first “prime” we meet is in the form of the husband (played by Jon Hamm) of elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith), who’s sinking into dementia.  He’s been provided to Marjorie by her daughter (Geena Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins).  (Marjorie’s preference was for the younger version of her late husband.) As the years go by, some of the other characters will be captured in prime form themselves after they pass away.  The primes are emotionally passive rather than passionate–they’re rather like polite therapists–and the memories they offer are only as accurate as the data with which they’ve been programmed.  Marjorie Prime is small-scale and low-tech, and it makes little effort to hide its original theatrical form.  Almereyda’s script makes quiet points about the reliability and uses of memory, and it’s driven by those and by its gradual revelation of character, rather than by dramatic plot developments.  Smith, who made her film debut 62 years ago, is moving and sometimes very funny as Marjorie, and Hamm is a charming artificial being, while Davis provides most of the film’s limited histrionics, and Robbins is quietly supportive.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."