Melissa Leo in Novitate.

Great actresses do great things in Novitate, a stunner from writer-director Margaret Betts.

Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) joins a convent in the 1960s, right in time for the major policy changes for nuns the Catholic Church made via Vatican II. She’s devoted, but also looking to escape a dreary childhood and her troubled mother (Julianne Nicholson). On her way to becoming a nun, Cathleen and her fellow sisters must contend with the fierce Reverend Mother (a scary Melissa Leo, playing one of the year’s best villains).

Reverend Mother has a few problems with Vatican II; she refuses to adopt some of its more lenient policies, and continues to practice something akin to fraternity hazing. Leo is a coiled snake in this movie, and her outbursts are frightening. The film is a testament to a nun’s faith, because a lot of the girls stick around even though the lady in charge is totally insane.

While Betts does focus upon the hypocrisy of organized religion, she doesn’t shy away from the potential beauty of religion, either. It’s an interesting balancing act she pulls off, with Leo and a very powerful Qualley making it entertaining.

Leo is probably in the running for awards consideration, while Qualley and Nicholson are equally powerful.

Novitate is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).