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Immaculate proves Sydney Sweeney is our most interesting movie star

March 13, 20244 Mins Read

No one is doing it like Sydney Sweeney, our most idiosyncratic young movie star. Riding rising fame from The White Lotus and Euphoria, her true star turn technically started at the end of 2023 with the release of Anyone but You, a raunchy throwback rom-com that turned into a massive box-office hit. After that she starred in the awful and derided Madame Web, but managed to come out the other side not just unscathed but brushing it off with A-list energy, joking about the movie’s failure on Saturday Night Live mere weeks after it opened. Her next big win is Immaculate, a weird, fascinating, and extremely fun new horror movie that’s coming to theaters later in March.

Immaculate opens with an American nun, Cecilia (Sweeney), transferring to a strange little convent in Italy that specializes in end-of-life care for their fellow sisters in faith. But everything’s a little off; there are people wandering around in red masks, terse sisters questioning her actions, and priests who are a little too friendly. After a few short days doing difficult caretaking work, Cecilia mysteriously becomes pregnant. Everyone at the convent proclaims that she’s carrying the second coming of Jesus Christ. Cecilia’s life only gets weirder from there.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate dressed like Mary with nuns flanking her on either side

Image: Neon

From the beginning, Immaculate director Michael Mohan is thoroughly committed to delivering a throwback exploitation movie of exorbitant sleaze. There may not be any outright sex in the movie, but there are long scenes of nuns taking baths in skimpy white dresses, and leering priests lurking around every corner that interrogate Cecilia over her virgin status — only to verify the purity and truth of their coming savior, of course. Immaculate also has more graphic blood, guts, and gore than most action movies these days. All of these little elements are hallmarks of prime 1970s nunsploitation, the horror offshoot specifically centered on the cloth.

The movie’s only real break from its genre roots comes in form: It’s simply a much better-made and more gorgeous movie than most of the films that inspired it. Mohan frames beautiful moments of haunting symmetry around the convent and uses the camera to make Cecilia look and feel completely isolated, particularly when her devout colleagues start worshiping her and dressing her like a haunted imitation of Mary. The movie is full of mood and carefully paced terror that is more sustained than bolstered, with a plotty ending that never pays off the movie’s conspiratorial promise. The good news is, in true exploitation fashion, the movie’s final moments are grisly, pitch-black, and perfect.

While nunsploitation movies have popped up every now and again, the lurid kind are still exceedingly rare, and certainly not what we think of as star vehicles for one of Hollywood’s biggest up-and-coming actresses. And yet, Sydney Sweeney goes all in, owning a prosthetic pregnancy stomach, ready to be covered head to toe in blood, and being an absolute star through every second of the film. And it’s all impressively unshowy. The part demands wide-eyed confusion and terror, and Sweeney plays it without a hint of vanity or desperation, assured enough in her star power not to reveal her character’s strength and competence until it’s absolutely necessary.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate holding a candle with nuns behind her

Image: Neon

Looking back, interesting but easily overlooked choices are Sweeney’s MO. After her breakout role in HBO’s Euphoria, she starred in Mohan’s previous movie, a fun and dirty erotic thriller called The Voyeurs. She played Reality Winner in Max’s Reality, a grittier acting showcase that felt like a classic made-for-TV movie. Now she’s followed up a hit R-rated rom-com with a tremendously fun nunsploitation movie. It’s the most fascinating career of anyone her age, and she’s absolutely captivating to watch, regardless of genre.

While actors like Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan have a bigger hit rate for prestige, Sweeney’s success shouldn’t be undervalued. But we need far more from our movie stars than just “great acting.” Sometimes all a movie star needs to be is the best part of a dozen movies you had a great time watching. That’s the kind of movie stardom Sydney Sweeney seems to be chasing. Sweeney’s like a movie star transported from an entirely different era. Rather than the stardom of most actors her age, she seems more interested in following in the footsteps of New Hollywood greats like Susan Sarandon or, if her upcoming Barbarella remake is any indication, Jane Fonda, taking fascinatingly weird roles that often ask for more than just glamour and drama. And it’s working.

Immaculate is in theaters on March 22.

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