The Sisterhood of Night is an often startling portrait of teenage life in the age of social media. Characters are shown to be casually married to their phones, laptops, cameras, and websites, and one pious, self-righteous girl, Emily (Kara Hayward), particularly frets about the number of people reading her blog. As she scans over her site’s comments, director Caryn Waechter often frames the girl’s face so that only one eye is visible, reflecting the words that Emily obsessively pours over on her computer screen. It’s a blunt but chilling visual metaphor for the fashions in which humans and computers now cohabitate, exacerbating dehumanization that allows people to insidiously qualify each other, and themselves, as hits, comments, “likes,” or as anything other than organisms who’re capable of being wounded by the movements of abstract symbols.
Though it’s not a horror movie, The Sisterhood of Night elucidates a trend that’s been visible in the horror genre for the last decade or so, most recently in It Follows. Typically reactionary, not only in regard to sex, but to social mores in general, the horror film is beginning to set its sights on the Internet and all the gizmos that have sprung in its wake, undermining these social shifts via pointed omission. With the exception of a tiny seashell-shaped device that functions as an e-book reader, It Follows could easily be set in the 1970s or 1980s. There’s a sense in these absences of a desire to return to a more tactile and less cluttered culture, and The Sisterhood of Night seizes upon this frustration and furiously explodes it.
The film imagines a kind of variation of the Salem witch trial in the age of Google and Instagram. Emily is having a feud with another classmate, Mary (Georgie Henley), that revolves around the usual regrettable slut-shaming before further intensifying over rumors surrounding Mary’s secret club, whose members, seemingly arbitrarily chosen, meet in the middle of the night at a location that’s disclosed by pictorial codes scribbled on intricately folded pieces of notebook paper. There are other quasi-suggestions of witchcraft, including the use of a pentagram, and Emily exploits these connotations, using her blog to initiate a smear campaign that immediately blossoms into cult hysteria. Soon, the surrounding children and parents are in on the act, filming contextually meaningless footage of one another and pouring over it with increasingly paranoid fervor. Waechter offers a representation of our contemporary voluntary surveillance state in microcosmic extremis.
Waechter is clearly inspired by other films concerned with teen despair and ennui, especially The Virgin Suicides, as she shares Sofia Coppola’s taste for slow, hazy neon imagery that embodies the longings that the young characters are largely helpless to realize or even articulate. Waechter isn’t a visionary like Coppola, but she has a remarkable eye, especially for faces, that undercuts the film’s occasional tendency to over-explicate its theme in the tradition of a public-service announcement. The girls are not the made-up hard bodies of most high school films. They’re inescapably girls, soft and poignantly unformed, who’re beginning to bear the full brunt of society’s myriad pressures, which are rendered ever inescapable by the portable theater of humiliation that’s arisen online. (Tellingly, Mary’s club is founded over the principle of rejecting Facebook.) The adult faces are nearly as memorable, gripped as they are by an understandable fear of losing their children to outside influences, though they’ve tragically misdiagnosed the sources of said influences.
The Sisterhood of Night is so unusually moving and penetrating because it refuses to cloud its emotions in distancing irony, anger, or nihilism. The film has a cleansing sense of earnestness that parallels the sisterhood’s yearning for acceptance and connection. The characters are attempting to reach each other and are brave enough to ask for assistance, however couched it may be in the defensive posturing of witchcraft. Mary’s club is an attempt to restore her community with an element of trust and innocence (that’s what the rejection of the Internet, in this and many other films, is ultimately about), and the stakes inherent in her aim are eventually understood in a vicious sequence that embodies social media’s worst potentials for proliferating monstrous acts of callousness. Yet even that violation is counterbalanced with a heartbreaking gesture of kindness that symbolizes a daring attempt to wrestle with cruelty, and to transcend it.