[9 April 2014]
There were never such devoted sisters.
—“Sisters” (Irving Berlin 1954)
The teenage protagonists of Stanley M. Brooks’ directorial debut, Perfect Sisters, fit into a long tradition of fictional sisters. One’s a blond who craves the “limelight, the other is dark and wants to be in Twilight: like their many predecessors, 16-year-old Sandra (Abigail Breslin) and 15-year-old Beth (Georgie Henley) are both opposite and symbiotic.
It’s easy to celebrate sisterly devotion. As Sandra says more than once, “It was always me and my sister against the big bad world.” The personal bond between sisters has been a model for broader political bonds, so that “sisterhood” has come to signify the feminist cause in a patriarchal world. But recently, according to Susan Faludi’s account of “American Feminism’s Electra Complex”,” sisterhood entails a type of ritual matricide. What makes Perfect Sisters so compelling is that it buys into both these models. What makes it disturbing is that it literalizes Faludi’s metaphor. And, as Sandra’s opening voiceover suggests, the sisters’ shared perspective is conflated with the film’s, so that viewers are invited to see things through their eyes.
Perfect Sisters—in select US theaters on 11 April and now on VOD—recalls a Canadian cause célèbre, concerning two teenagers who gave their mother booze and pills before drowning her in the bath in 2003, hoping to make it look like an accidental death. Initially they get away with it, but soon enough, disaffected friends collude with police efforts to arrest them. Despite the sensational subject, Perfect Sisters is less interested in the crime itself than in the intersubjective connections and fantasies that provoke its commission and the psychic unraveling it produces.
The film establishes Sandra and Beth as archetypal caring, sharing sisters. They may look different, but they act as one. The film emphasizes their togetherness, in scenes set in a shared bedroom to walks hand-in-hand. Both have boyfriends, but no heterosexual romance comes between them or matches the intensity of their attachment, as they look as opposed to “the world” as they say they do.
Unlike the cliquey teen world that features so prominently in Bob Mitchell’s 2008 book, The Class Project: How To Kill A Mother, on which the film is based, here the girls don’t get out much. Like the book, though, the film shows their primary antagonist to be their alcoholic mother Linda (Mira Sorvino), who’s had a series of jobs and abusive boyfriends. The sisters tell “What if” stories in which an idealized version of Linda performs various stereotypes of femininity recognizable from soap operas and women’s magazines. At one moment, she’s a glamorous shopper, the next a perfect housewife proffering home-baked cookies, and in yet another, she’s adorned by a halo of light. Of one comforting make-believe image, Sandra and Beth wonder, “Can we keep her?”
The woman who’s not a fantasy is much less appealing. Both Sandra and Beth make fun of her attempts to connect with them by using teenage jargon and are embarrassed by her sexy behavior in front of their friends. Worse, Linda puts them at risk, with a new boyfriend, Steve (James Russo), who physically and sexually abuses Linda, hits their younger half-brother, and lusts after Beth. Here the film invites at least some sympathy for the girls.
Still, we see them acting out in their imaginations various murder scenarios (pushing their mother down the stairs, setting her on fire), and as the boundaries between fiction and reality grow more porous, they become spectators of their lives, much as we are, as though the whole thing is a family drama or reality TV. When Sandra and Beth remember a childhood trip to the lake, we see sepia-tinted home movie footage. Watching with them, we invest in their nostalgia. Similarly, when they speak to each other in the secret language they have made up together and people around them are excluded from understanding them, subtitles give us access to their inner thoughts.
At the same time, the film plays visual tricks on them. Unlike her Goth-costumed and alienated sister, Sandra visually resembles her slim, blond mother. She’s more sympathetic towards Linda than is Beth, which causes conflict between the two girls. Baking brownies for Steve, and taking on some maternal responsibilities, it’s clear that Sandra wants to be like her fantasy mom, not the Linda she knows. During the murder scene, the camera cuts from Linda’s face staring up from underwater and Sandra’s face looking down at her, a mirroring in tension with earlier moments when the sisters contemplate their reflections framed together in a mirror.
Ironically, after the murder, the mother-daughter bond threatens to destroy that of the sisters. Beth is hard to read because she is good at keeping secrets and silence. Sandra, on the other hand, externalizes her guilt. She acts out her mother’s addiction to alcohol and sex. She seems compelled to repeat her mother’s self-destruction and to tell others what they have done. The nadir of their relationship comes when Beth tells her stumbling, hung-over sister, “You remind me of Mom.” At the same time, Perfect Sisters manages its own sort of reminding, repeating images and ideas so that their meanings become uncertain, or change with each iteration (the home movies recur three times, there are two scenes in bathtubs). The only thing the girls do know, and that we know with them, is that their devotion to each other constitutes their reality and identity.
Outside of this reality, they appear not to be monsters, but rather, complex victims of parental and social neglect. This much is underlined in Linda’s relationship with her own sister, the girls’ Aunt Martha (Rusty Schwimmer). Their relationship too is defined by dependence, conflict, and intimacy. In a moving funeral eulogy, Martha extols her sister’s virtues, especially her love for her kids. Though Beth’s ironic voiceover immediately provides a counter narrative, this dialogic take on Linda offers the spectator some critical distance from the teenage protagonists.
Perfect Sisters’ version of a toxic intergenerational conflict speaks to Faludi’s bleak message that each generation’s sisterhood entails the murder of the mother, literally but more broadly as well. I have been haunted, in the days since I watched Perfect Sisters, by Sorvino’s portrayal of Sandra and Beth’s sad, struggling, victimized mother. And I’m left wondering how the real Sandra and Beth, both now attending Canadian universities, will fare if they become mothers of daughters.