The misunderstood lives of teenage girls, ever so enigmatic and worrisome to adults, have manifested as a form of mythos in pop culture. Just consider the snarky, revealing panoply of The Craft, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl and Heathers. You could add The Sisterhood of Night to the list, but due to its inability to plumb teen angst with any introspective sincerity, it’s unlikely to resonate with any bite over time.
The premise behind Sisterhood, based on the short story by Steven Millhauser (The Illusionist), is both rich and rife with prospect. Two friends have a falling out and form divergent societies—one the late night clutch of the film’s title, while the other founds a virtual online support group for outcast and abused girls. The brassier of the two frienemies, Marry Warren (Georgie Henley from the The Chronicles of Narnia), convenes the lot of handpicked and secretly initiated girls who zealously adhere to the vow of what happens in the sisterhood, stays in the sisterhood.
What exactly they do in the middle of the night out in the woods remains unclear for much of the film. We know they’re good at dodging their parents’ watchful eyes and sneaking out to the covert spot; what transpires there becomes the subject of much speculation by the residents of the small town of Kingston, N.Y., who, with all the modern technology at their fingertips, remain powerless to gain a glimmer into the goings-ons of their beloved daughters.
The other half of the equation, Emily Paris (Kara Howard), claims to have followed the sisterhood one night and when caught, was accosted and abused by them. She subsequently launches an online community that empowers abused girls from across the country to speak out. The viral growth of Emily’s appeal never gets fully explored, but then again, dithering around on the web never really made for good cinema anyhow.
The film, built on a modest budget of a million dollars (the estimate on IMDB), employed a Kickstarter campaign to garner the green light. Director Caryn Waechter, in her feature debut, and writer Marilyn Fu rely heavily on smoke and mirror misdirection to maintain the sense of suspense. The tactic is not only junior varsity as employed, it leaves the viewer in a fog of confusion as if given a cup of witches brew, dumped in the foggy deep woods and left to find a way home.
It’s too bad, because Henley shines impressively, her big blue eyes and auburn locks at once casting an air of vulnerable innocence and demonic mischief. It’s such a solid performance that the young actress almost carries Sisterhood past its knock-kneed apprehensiveness. Howard, so compelling and full of promise in Moonrise Kingdom, isn’t given much to do but pout and look dour. She’s little more than dressing, a plot point foil and a painfully obvious one at that. For good measure, funny guy and former Obama staffer Kal Penn checks in as the guidance counselor with an open door and open heart whose actions too get misconstrued.
At its core, Sisterhood wants to be about reaching out and getting beyond the walls of misperception and miscommunication, but if you play too many shell games, finding that heart goes from being a genuine emotional odyssey to a cheap parlor trick.
Director: Caryn Waechter
Writer: Marilyn Fu, based on Steven Millhauser’s short story
Starring: Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman and Kal Penn
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Paste, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. He is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.