Kal Penn leads an up-and-coming cast with Georgie Henley and Kara Hayward in an ambitious and timely film about a modern-day Salem witch trial
Arriving amidst the current witch trend — which includes female-targeted TV series like WGN America’s “Salem,” FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven,” and HBO’s pilot-in-development “The Devil You Know” by Jenji Kohan — is “The Sisterhood of Night,” a smart and timely teen drama that asks why we’re so afraid of rebellious young women. When three none-too-peppy girls in a wealthy upstate suburb are accused of occult practices by a classmate, it’s the townspeople’s quick willingness to believe the worst about the trio that’s put on trial.
Boasting no less an ambition than saying something new about teenage girls, director Caryn Waechter and screenwriter Marilyn Fu (adapting a short story by Steven Millhauser; both women make their feature debuts here) present a novel mix of new anxieties (cyberbullying) and old fears (difficult women and the Salem-ish persecution thereof). Though it hinges on an overly coy mystery and improbable plot twists, the drama is a poignant paean to young women and feminine creativity, bolstered by impressive performances from a fresh cast and a sense of breathy, hyper-aware immediacy that captures the heady now-ness of adolescence.
Mary (Georgie Henley) and her best friends Catherine and Lavinia (Willa Cuthrell and Olivia DeJonge) aren’t the usual mean girls. Hiding under the bleachers at a school dance, they whisper in a huddle around a small fire, leaping and twirling around the gym floor under the strobe lights only when the smoke alarm — the same one they turned on with their indoor bonfire — forces the rest of the school to evacuate the building. Still, every girl in school wants to be friends with Mary and her BFFs, especially Emily (Kara Hayward), the class gossip and a budding blogger.
Emily pushes hard for an invitation into Mary’s inner circle (an actual piece of paper with a puzzle that alludes to a secret ceremony in the woods) only to be met with steadfast rejection. Angry and hurt, Emily starts a rumor online that Mary and her friends worship the devil and cast hexes on their schoolmates. Unexpectedly, commenters on Emily’s blog come forward with their own stories of Mary’s malevolence, and the whispers snowball into an epidemic of fainting spells, a sex scandal involving the school guidance counselor (Kal Penn) and, eventually, grievous harm to one of the girls.
Throughout it all, Mary and her friends maintain a strict silence about what really goes on during their midnight rituals. The film dangles the mystery of their activity about five times too many, but, happily, the answer turns out to be worth the wait, even if it’s closer to fantasy than plausibility. Another storyline, relating the tragedy of the ill-fated girl who becomes the victim of the school’s jealousy and fear of Mary, strains credulity even further.
And yet it’s hard to begrudge the script these narrative hairpins, for they lead to the film’s persuasively argued and rather original thesis about girlhood, as well as an exceptionally rich final scene that’s equal parts devastating and joyful.
Hayward threatens to steal the picture as the pinched and defensive gossip girl, who inevitably becomes the target of her own online backlash as Mary’s outer. But there’s no dethroning Henley as the film’s queen bee, with the “Chronicles of Narnia” actress doing a pretty good impersonation of “Foxfire”-era Angelina Jolie: sexy but open-faced, curious but scheming, intimidating but inviting.
“The Sisterhood of Night” is too messy to qualify as a great film, especially when it begins introducing, in passing, peripheral characters who survived rape and incest, but it certainly isn’t muddled. It knows teenage girls — or at least its admiring version of teenage girls — and it’s comfortable with nuance. Some secrets need to see the sun, it argues, and others need to be cloaked in night forever.