Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Sister Aloysius Beauvier will give you nightmares. The nun, in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, will make you hold your breath as she silently paces a classroom; snap your shoulders back when she instructs a young churchgoer to "Straighten up"; and pity the student she calls to from across the schoolyard with a simple but furious, "Boy!"
Sister Aloysius is played by Meryl Streep, and it doesn't matter if you've spent the summer going to Mamma Mia! sing-alongs, giddily warbling with the curly-haired, contagiously blissful Academy Award-winner. It may not even matter if you've attended parochial school. Streep's holy woman is a beast in a habit of the throwback variety, and she will put the fear of God in you.
Though Streep's performance is fierce, it's not the only good reason to see Doubt, which Shanley both directed and adapted from his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play. Doubt's story is set in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic school just starting to feel the clash between members of the traditional religious order, represented by Sister Aloysius, and the younger punks unshackled by Vatican II, such as kindly history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams, again well cast as a gentle ray of light) and the new parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Father Flynn is warm and connects easily with his flock, thanks to a ready smile and homilies that are both compellingly delivered and thought-provoking. Flynn doesn't seem to view Sister Aloysius as much of a threat, merely a relic of the church's old and soon-to-be-bygone days. While she and the rest of the convent eat dinner in silence, with libations no stronger than milk, Flynn and his fellow priests are shown telling jokes over booze, their faces red from both.
Flynn stops regarding Sister Aloysius as simply a bitter old broad, however, not long after her badgering of Sister James to be more vigilant with her class leads the young nun to confide something she thought odd: One afternoon, Father Flynn called a student, Donald (Joseph Foster II), to the rectory. Donald acted strangely upon returning and had alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius needs only this information and a short meeting in which she notices some of Father Flynn's preferences (sugar in his tea, modern pen, secular Christmas songs) to come to an unshakable conclusion: three lumps + ballpoint + "Frosty the Snowman" = pedophile.
The plot of Doubt was obviously inspired by news of church cover-ups regarding molestation of children by priests. Shanley uses the allegation as a launchpad to address issues of trust, trade-offs (Donald's mother, played by Viola Davis, has a surprising reaction to the suspicions), and the ugliness that can grow around an unsubstantiated rumor. The changes brought by Vatican II and the '60s in general are also scrutinized: Is it better for teachers, priests and parents to come off as feared authority figures or as permissive friends?
Doubt unsurprisingly turns into a Hoffman-Streep throwdown. Both Serious Actors deliver passionate performances, though Hoffman is less showy than his co-star. It may be wearying to hear people cry "Oscar!" whenever Streep takes a role. But Catholic-school survivors will know: When Sister Aloysius is at her most apoplectic, yelling, "I may not have proof, but I have my certainty!" as she points to the ceiling and then her chest, it's an award-winning moment.