Freestyle Digital Media
Movies about teenage girls more often than not fall into one of two categories these days – either the young ladies are wrapped up in an epic romance, or they’re falling victim to some supernatural, PG-13 threat – but it may surprise you to learn that there’s more to their lives than hymens and horrors.
Mary (Georgie Henley) is something of a free spirit accustomed to holding herself apart from most of the student body at her school, but that divide grows exponentially when she and two of her friends form a mysterious and exclusive club. Catherine (Willa Cuthrell) is struggling with a mom who’s dying slowly from cancer while Lavinia’s (Olivia DeJonge) mother dates a new man every night, but together with Mary they’re able to find a comfortable distraction in the woods late at night. The trio begins to handpick other girls to join the “Sisterhood” with the understanding that no part of what they do will be spoken about with anyone outside of the group.
Trouble arises when Emily (Kara Hayward), a girl permanently trapped on the outside, takes to her blog with revelations and accusations about the Sisterhood’s activities. A social media-fueled backlash against the group’s exclusivity begins, the accusations multiply and soon a groundswell of reactionary fear of the unknown overtakes the town. Witchcraft, lesbianism, sexual molestation, sacrilege – the Sisterhood is believed to be practicing all of the above and more, and as the pressures rise from peers, parents and authorities alike an inevitable tragedy appears on the horizon.
Director Caryn Waechter’s feature debut, scripted by Marilyn Fu from a short story by Steven Millhauser, is a cautionary tale that fleshes out its familiar backbone with heart, innocence and honest beauty. Peer pressure, loneliness, insecurity and bullying (both physical and online) are realities at play here, but there’s no shortage of friendship and love to be found alongside the mystery of The Sisterhood of Night.
The audience is kept somewhat in the dark about the Sisterhood’s nightly activities at first, but we have enough information to form a reasonable opinion. Are they committing sins against God and man, or is their greatest crime leaving unattended fires burning in the woods? It might feel like a stretch to see supposedly rational adults go in a more ridiculous and paranoid direction, but the real world has proven repeatedly that people are easily moved to herd mentality by fear or the desire to be noticed – the McMartin preschool debacle from the ’80s is just one terrifying, high profile example.
The film does a fine job balancing the teens and adults, and while the focus is on the four main girls we’re made privy to the actions and reactions of others. It’s a sadly believable and frustrating truth captured here as those outside of the group rush to attack it as a way to feel important and special. As well-crafted as much of is there’s a real familiarity to this part of the film, and it’s easy to see where things are going more often than not. Thankfully the script finds an unexpected angle in response to the claims that grow out of Emily’s initial blog post, and it’s a welcome and intriguing wrinkle.
Waechter immerses viewers in the girls’ world from the friction of life at home to the social battlefield of high school, and it all feels authentic to anyone who was ever a teenager. Peeks into the Sisterhood’s time in the woods are presented with a dreamy haze but still feel grounded in the very real magic of serenity, safety and friendship. We see the joy and playfulness in the girls’ eyes, but Waechter captures the flip-side too in close-ups of Emily staring covetously at her computer screen. Virtual adoration reflects in her eyes as her comments, “likes” and followers increase and the focus – both the film’s and the girl’s – becomes clear.
The cast is strong throughout including Kal Penn’s sympathetic portrayal of the girls’ guidance counselor caught up in the tale in ways both personal and professional, but the power and heart of it all is found in the four leads. Henley stands out with an immediate fearlessness made more powerful by the occasionally glimpsed cracks in her armor, DeJonge captures the uncertain desires of our teenage years with visible fragility and Cuthrell becomes a source of real warmth through the film as her artificially-strengthened teen exterior gives way to emotional highs and lows. Hayward has the toughest job here as an unlikable and needy troublemaker, but she finds the humanity necessary to make Emily more than simply a villain.
The Sisterhood of Night is a film that respects teenage girls even as it acknowledges the difficulty they face in navigating the choppy waters of friends and peers. It avoids the exaggeration of Mean Girls and the visual bombast of The Craft to tell a very real story about the pressures of fitting in, the dangers of standing out and the ultimate need each of us has for companionship.
The Upside: Emotionally affecting third act; honest look at teen girl troubles and pressures; smartly told cautionary tale; four leads give strong performances
The Downside: Core plot is familiar and predictable