Caryn Waechter’s restless modern-day teen witch-trial drama has more to recommend it than you might expect for a film whose central suspense is based on a miserable cheat. Her witches — or are they? — are a small-town high school’s too-cool mean girls and its outcasts, and Waechter and her cast string together many moments of quick, lancing insight, all distinguished by wide-ranging empathy. It’s the string those moments dangle on that’s the problem. An adaptation of a Steven Millhauser short story, Sisterhood drags out to feature length a mystery that’s best handled in just a couple pages.
Gently goth-y Mary Warren (Georgie Henley), a young woman who has mastered the trick of making her coolness look like an accident, unplugs from social media to plunge, as she puts it, into the darkness. She enlists a couple friends into a midnight Sisterhood, which seems to involve sneaking out of the house, gathering around bonfires, and much chanting and ritualized dancing. A young woman (Kara Hayward) who’s excluded from the group crashes one gathering, and then — after the film jumps confusingly ahead — claims that the “witches” cut open her hand and sexually assaulted her. Then comes the drama: Are the girls witches? Is the accuser lying?
Waechter asks us to invest in these questions and in these characters, but to preserve the former the film wholly neglects the latter: The accused witch is a p.o.v. character, but we’re not shown until the climax what she and her friends actually do at night. It’s a surprise when, an hour in, one of the accused tells us that the Sisterhood has given meaning to her life: By that point we don’t even know what the Sisterhood is, exactly, or who these young women are. The film feels centerless, often confounding, and seems to chase after the wrong things: There’s a charmer of a scene where Kal Penn, as the guidance counselor, flirts with a teacher in a library, but why are we shown that rather than the lives of the young people we’re being asked to worry over?
There’s no narrative excuse for this omission. Waechter’s p.o.v. will dip into the heads of any of its characters at any time, eavesdropping on their prayers or letting them take turns as narrator. She also indulges in the pretend-reporting that sometimes tricks kids into believing horror flicks are retelling true events — we hear the contents of the accuser’s prayers immediately after seeing a pretend interview with Penn’s character.
The two approaches never jibe, but they’re symptomatic of the way the film always seems caught between conflicting impulses: between lit-fic and Y.A., between ensemble mystery and new-Salem horror story. It’s too principled to scare us of either witches or of witch-hunters, but it’s not principled enough to tell its story straight. It’s a sweet, sympathetic film, based on wise and memorable material and featuring inspired performances from its teen cast, but it simply collapses.
Directed by Caryn Waechter. Written by Marilyn Fu. Starring Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Kal Penn, Laura Fraser, Willa Cuthrell, and Olivia DeJonge.