The Sisterhood of Night
As I skimmed the advance press coverage of The Sisterhood of Night, I saw one odd pattern repeated over and over again. To read most articles about this story of a modern-day witch-hunt instigated by one group of teenage girls against another, you’d think that it’s really about their male guidance counselor. Here’s a hint, guys: the story’s not always about us. When there’s only one significant male character, that might be a tip-off.
And the film itself is actually pretty good. In abandoning the faux-verité style of A Girl Like Her, it manages to feel truer. The salacious genre trappings blow these conflicts up to outrageous heights, which lets us more clearly probe the emotional truths underneath.
It all starts, as it must, on the internet. Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), feeling alone and unnoticed, has a blog that nobody reads. She tries to take a shortcut to notoriety, stealing text messages from Mary Warren (Georgie Henley) and posting them out in public. Like most bullies, Emily isn’t one of the most popular kids around; she sees humiliation of someone even further down as an easy way up.
The twist here is how Mary responds: by pulling the plug on her social media accounts and going electronically “silent”. Her friends, Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) and Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell), pull tight around her. They take a “vow of silence”, providing each other a safe place to say those things they’d fear being exposed from any online forum. And they invite other girls to join, carefully curating their membership and meeting in small groups in the woods at night to share their secrets.
By the next school year, Emily is envious of the growing Sisterhood. She follows one group into the woods one night, and the next day makes a public accusation that they molested her. It’s no surprise that rumors of a teenage lesbian sex cult go over like gangbusters, especially in an upstate New York town where everyone seems to go to the same church. Other girls echo Emily’s accusations; things begin to snowball into some very pointed questions, and maybe even formal charges.
But Mary and the rest of the Sisterhood take their vow seriously, refusing to explain to the aforementioned guidance counselor (Kal Penn) who really does mean well and could have cleared the whole mess up. Meanwhile, Emily gets the fame she thought she wanted. It comes first from other kids at her school, but then her blog becomes a clearinghouse for real molestation victims across the country to come forward about their own trauma. Things on both sides start spinning out of control.
The Sisterhood of Night manages to find sympathy for Emily, as A Girl Like Her would suggest, but Hayward brings her character around in a more gradual and believable way. Mary, on the other hand, gets to be a strong leader and an independent young woman, but Henley still has the space to show her need for vulnerability. Lavinia and Catherine each have their own side arc, filling out and shading in the varied experiences that drew these girls together, and both DeJonge and Cuthrell deliver touching performances. And Penn finds good use for his comedic talents, particularly in one charming scene with Lavinia’s mother (Laura Fraser).
In adapting Steven Millhauser’s short story, screenwriter Marilyn Fu and director Caryn Waechter offer us a messy, nuanced world where nothing is either wholly good or evil. It suggests compassion both for everyone who lacks the perspective to see when they’re making a mistake, whether it harms themselves or others. Despite the occasional off-notes and moments that push the scenery-chewing a little out of balance, it’s a story that sticks with you, growing in your mind long after the credits roll. And most importantly it’s one that lets these girls speak for themselves.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.