Caryn Waechter, Cult, Drama, Georgie Henley, Guidance counsellor, High School, Kal Penn, Kara Hayward, Kingston, Laura Fraser, Literary adaptation, Review, Secret society, Sisterhood, Steven Millhauser
D: Caryn Waechter / 103m
Cast: Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Kal Penn, Laura Fraser, Olivia DeJonge, Willa Cuthrell, Jessica Hecht, Gary Wilmes, Louis Changchien, Morgan Turner, Evan Kuzma
Following a feud between teenage classmates Mary Warren (Henley) and Emily Parris (Hayward) that lands both of them in the office of guidance counsellor Gordy Gambhir (Penn), Mary – whose private texts have been published online via Emily’s blog – decides to go offline and take a vow of virtual silence. She also decides to create a sisterhood, a group that girls can join that doesn’t rely on sharing things online but with each other. Her first recruits are Catherine (Cuthrell) and Lavinia (DeJonge). At night, they sneak out to the woods and have their meetings. Above all, they swear to maintain the secrecy of what they’re doing.
As time passes, awareness of the sisterhood grows and membership becomes an ambition for many of Mary’s peers, but only she chooses who to invite into the group. One person left out is Emily, who becomes jealous of Mary’s influence on her friends, and who struggles to fit in at school. One night she follows a new member into the woods and witnesses one of the meetings. Later that night, Emily posts an update on her blog telling everyone that the girls in the sisterhood chanted dirty words, undressed and touched each other, and cut Emily’s hand before doing the same to her. With the sisterhood refusing to reveal the nature of their meetings, Emily’s claims are allowed to go unchallenged, and soon her blog becomes very popular on the Internet, attracting hundreds of followers. It also attracts other schoolmates who claim they have been abused by the sisterhood as well.
As more and more claims are made about the sisterhood, the girls’ parents become more and more aware of what’s going on, and so too does the media. The press has a field day speculating on whether or not the sisterhood is a cult, or if it brainwashes its members, or if it worships the devil, but Mary and the rest hold fast and keep to their vow of silence. Emily’s blog continues to grow in stature, and becomes a place where people who have been abused can talk about what’s happened to them. At the same time, Emily and two of her friends decide to target Lavinia, believing that put under enough pressure she will reveal the secrets of the sisterhood. Meanwhile, Mary’s budding relationship with Jeff (Kuzma) founders over her silence, and upset by this she ends up one night at Gambhir’s; matters are made worse by their being seen by Emily’s mother (Hecht). As tensions mount in the community, Mary comes under pressure from Catherine and Lavinia to come clean, while Emily has second thoughts about the plan to make Lavinia reveal the sisterhood’s secrets.
There’s a moment in The Sisterhood of Night where approachable guidance counsellor Gordy, tasked with trying to find out what the sisterhood is all about, attempts to talk to Mary in his office. She’s unresponsive, so he gets up and goes to talk to the school principal (Gilmes), who just happens to be outside. Also outside – conveniently – is Emily. Mary remarks that Emily’s hand must hurt where she slipped on some rocks; Emily responds by recounting what she saw up until the point where a) the script doesn’t want to go because it wants to retain the mystery of what did happen, or b) the point at which Emily will have to make things up to appear credible. It’s a fine line that the script – by Marilyn Fu, and adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser – comes close to crossing time and again, but the audience knows that Emily is lying about what she saw, despite all this prevarication. In the same way that we know (without being told explicitly) that the sisterhood aren’t devil worshippers or cult members, we know that there is a solid reason for Mary’s starting the group (though what that is remains a secret until the end).
In making a movie about secrets that prompt lies and deception, Fu and first-time feature director Waechter have fashioned a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials, with accusations flying thick and fast and hysteria gripping hold of the Kingston community. But there’s a fly in the ointment, and it’s a big one: the paucity of adult involvement. While Mary and Emily and their mutual supporters are given much of the screen time, the adults fare so badly it’s almost as if they and their motivations were an after thought. Lavinia’s mother, Rose (Fraser), acts distraught and unable to cope from the moment she learns of her daughter’s involvement in the sisterhood. Gordy allows himself to be put in an inappropriate situation when Mary stays the night, but makes only one phone call to let anyone know (and thus cover himself). Emily’s mother is the small-town Christian busybody who accuses first and doesn’t even bother to ask questions later, and who behaves like a less shrill version of Veronica Cartwright’s character in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). And the police barely get a look in, despite the nature of the accusations being made by the press and everyone else. This approach makes the movie appear lopsided in its focus, and it never manages it right itself.
This is also a movie where the kids run rings round everyone else, and while this might make for an intriguing reflection on modern society and the nuclear family, and the teenagers who believe they can reject any notion of personal responsibility, it makes for an awkward, uncomfortable movie that is rescued by a clutch of intuitive, resonant performances. Leaving behind – way behind – her best-known role as Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia movies, Henley is authoritative and deceptively alluring. She makes Mary the provocative, intimidating centre of the movie, beguiling and caustic, and never lets the character become too affected or pretentious. It’s a strong, effortless portrayal, and she holds the audience’s attention throughout. As her primary adversary, Hayward makes Emily a more three-dimensional character than expected, fleshing out the awkward adolescent feelings Emily is trying to deal with, and making her more sympathetic than she appears at the movie’s start. With equally strong support from Cuthrell and DeJonge, the movie benefits from all four young actresses’ approach to the material, and they help guide the movie through some of its more overly melodramatic moments.
While the movie is largely uneven, and strains credibility at times, it does have a sense of small-town paranoia that is effectively rendered, and the casually cruel behaviour of teenage girls is adequately presented (if not delved into too deeply). Waechter displays a knack for making the meetings in the woods as creepy as rumour and gossip would have them, and she’s equally adept at teasing odd nuances out of the characters’ behaviour, especially when Emily attends a radio station and comes face to face with some of the victims of real abuse who’ve responded to her blog. Zak Mulligan’s photography unfortunately paints a drab portrait of Kingston and its surroundings, while some scenes feel truncated thanks to Aaron Yanes’ assembly of the material. There’s also a voice over provided by a minor character that comes and goes without any consistency.
Rating: 6/10 – without sufficient depth or clarity applied to the story and characters, The Sisterhood of Night comes across as being a mystery about something the audience won’t ultimately care about; when the reason comes though, it’s beautifully told, and more than makes up for some of the vicissitudes that have gone before.