A secret society of teenage girls stirs up waves of panic and paranoia in “The Sisterhood of Night,” an alternately sensitive and heavy-handed small-town drama that turns the Salem witchcraft trials into a tenuous metaphor for the intense pressures brought to bear on today’s female youth. A self-styled “Crucible” for the cyberbullying era, Caryn Waechter’s feature directing debut spins a programmatic and not always persuasive tale of high-school pettiness and jealousy spiraling toward tragedy. Still, it does offer an appreciably even-handed, non-judgmental panorama of teens and adults flailing their way toward a place of greater empathy and understanding, presented with enough teasing intrigue to draw coven-sized pockets of viewer interest in theatrical and VOD release.
Adapted from Steven Millhauser’s 1994 story (which was previously filmed as a 2006 short), Marilyn Fu’s screenplay assumes the perspectives of several residents of Kingston, N.Y. — a suburban town that, we’re told in an opening voiceover, has recently born witness to a shocking scandal. The instigator would appear to be a strong-willed, mischief-minded high schooler named Mary Warren (Georgie Henley), who, along with her close friends Catherine (Willa Cuthrell, affecting) and Lavinia (Olivia DeJonge), starts a girls’ group known as the Sisterhood. New initiates are personally hand-selected by Mary and invited to attend nocturnal meetings in the nearby woods, traveling there in werewolf-like packs and performing curious rituals by firelight.
Observing all this from an envious distance is an attention-seeking classmate, Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), who begins writing in salacious detail about the Sisterhood’s meetings on her blog (which immediately becomes an overnight viral sensation). Claiming to have suffered sexual abuse and physical violence at the hands of Mary and her minions, and even feigning a fainting spell (the film’s most “Crucible”-esque touch), Emily is clearly bending the truth at best and flat-out lying at worst. But the townsfolk have little difficulty believing her story, and before long they’re anxiously discussing the possibility of a “lesbian sex cult” in their midst. Adding to the confusion, the members of the Sisterhood refuse to break their vow of silence — a defiant gesture that is naturally interpreted as an admission of guilt, even as it adds a coy layer of suspicion and ambiguity to the narrative.
Flitting from one dysfunctional household to the next, the film casts a duly sympathetic eye on the difficult bonds between children and parents (the fine actors playing the latter include Jessica Hecht, Orlagh Cassidy and Louis Changchien), from the difficulties of cross-generational communication to the complications posed by illness and divorce. No one here is a villain, and everyone is misunderstood to some degree, including a well-meaning guidance counselor (a very likable Kal Penn) whose efforts to help these troubled teens merely cause tensions to escalate. The more the film fans the flames of hysteria, however, the less convincing it ultimately seems: For a story attempting to locate the pulse of contemporary youth culture, the use of old-fashioned newspaper headlines to summarize new plot developments feels like a particularly hoary choice, as does a cardboard subplot involving a nosy investigative reporter (Brian Berrebbi).
Among other things, “The Sisterhood of Night” is the latest in a string of timely cinematic cautionary tales (including the indie drama “A Girl Like Her” and the real-time Internet thriller “Unfriended”) that have addressed the often fatal consequences of cyberbullying. One of the story’s more coherently developed ideas is that social media and technology enable not just harassment, but conformity; only by removing themselves from the dominant social sphere (i.e., Facebook) can these girls honestly acknowledge their hopes, dreams, desires and frustrations, and present their true selves to one another without fear of judgment or scorn. Unfortunately, this laudable idea gets somewhat lost in a film that rather ambitiously seeks to address the full range of issues affecting teenage girls today, from sexual identity and body image to run-of-the-mill loneliness and alienation — all of which serve to put a more didactic than dramatic spin on the proceedings.
Waechter compensates somewhat by working in a fleet, fragmented but accessibly linear style, which benefits considerably from Zak Mulligan’s handheld lensing, Aaron Yanes’ sharp editing, and moody musical accompaniment courtesy of composer Tobias Enhus and the electronic music duo the Crystal Method. Her strongest assets here are her young actors: Cuthrell is an affecting standout as the gloomy Catherine, while Hayward prevails over the somewhat underwritten role of the scheming, insecure Emily. But the one who really holds your attention is Henley, the remarkable 19-year-old British actress who made her bigscreen debut 10 years ago as Lucy Pevensie in “The Chronicles of Narnia” series; adorably earnest as she was then, she’s a quietly bewitching presence here, a performer who truly does seem to warrant her own cultlike following.