I can't imagine what it would be like growing up in a world drenched with social media and constant, instant connectivity. Kids' lives and their self-images are radically different today than they were when I was a pup. This generation and the effects social media have on them have been explored in films before, but director Caryn Waechter and screenwriter Marilyn Fu's The Sisterhood of the Night takes this ostensibly familiar material and delivers it through their own artistic and poignant filter. It's a film made by women about young girls and it is that female-centered viewpoint that really propels The Sisterhood of Night above what would otherwise be an after-school special.
Adapted from Steven Millhauser's 1994 short story, the film is essentially a contemporary witch-hunt with the rejection of social media bringing about cries of "heretic" rather than a perceived devotion to Satan. Logging offline and refusing to let their Facebook pages determine their self-worth, the girls increasingly become the target of small-town hysteria. They're led by Mary (Georgie Henley) whose disgust with the cliques at school drives her to remove herself from Facebook — a "vow of silence" she calls it. Her close friends follow her lead, and soon they're a full-fledged secret society: "The Sisterhood" (and, yes, they meet at night).
What these girls actually do during their clandestine meetings in the woods is the central mystery of the film. Once the school's resident scandalmonger Emily (Kara Hayward) leaks an ambiguous video of one of these nocturnal meetings on her blog, whispers of "secret lesbian sex cult" and "witch lesbian sex cult" start circulating around town — first in high school hallways and then the local newspaper. Speculation runs rampant, threatening the Sisterhood's well-being and that of their guidance counselor, played by Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame.
As the rampant speculation turns into a full-on media circus, Mary and her crew remain tight-lipped about what their group is all about, which drives Emily and most of the townsfolk rapidly bonkers. It all culminates in a tragic act of cruelty that exemplifies why the girls went offline in the first place. Through it all Waechter and Fu submerge us in the lives of the Sisterhood, though I wish more time was spent on Mary. She is the ringleader, after all, and despite a brief back-story about her beefing with Emily before the Sisterhood was formed, we are given the least amount of insight into her personal life.
The film has a dreamlike quality that resonates throughout, particularly during the Sisterhood meetings. The only real hiccups are that the narration seesaws between the guidance counselor and one of the girls (having one storyteller would've given more focus) and the interviews that pop up in places. These documentary-style interviews disrupt that dreamy quality and don't really serve any purpose.
The Sisterhood of Night is a film that gives teenage girls the respect that they're so rarely given in film. There are teen romance elements, sure, and a look at cliques and the desire to fit in, but they're never overbearing or used for punch lines. The film is essentially about a group of female companions wanting to create a safe place for themselves. The plot's central elements are ones we've seen before, but Waechter's film puts a fresh, tautly wound spin on them.