If, as in the phrase popularized by Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies and statistics—then there are also at least three different kinds of true stories, which, when adapted for the big screen, are most assuredly not wielded with equal strokes of grace and credibility. Rich evidence of this exists in the form of Perfect Sisters, a surprisingly tension-free drama starring Abigail Breslin and Georgie Henley as siblings who start to entertain thoughts of matricide.
Neither touching the rich, charged atmosphere of Heavenly Creatures, nor aiming for something more darkly comedic or rooted in social commentary, director Stan Brooks’ film instead exists in a soupy, unpersuasive middle ground. Simply being based on a true-crime case from around a dozen years ago is inherently interesting enough to sustain an entire narrative framework, its filmmakers seem to think. That instinct proves wrong.
Separated by only a year, teenage sisters Sandra (Breslin) and Beth (Henley) are extraordinarily close—lifelines to stability for one another in a shared life still defined by the lapses in judgment and responsibility of their alcoholic mother, Linda Anderson (Mira Sorvino). (They also have a seven-year-old half-brother, though he’s largely shunted to the side here.) When another characteristically scummy in a long line of abusive boyfriends, Steve (James Russo), enters the picture with Linda, it pushes the girls past a breaking point. They begin to ponder killing their mother in order to create normal lives for themselves, and even talk openly with a couple high school friends, Justin (Jeff Ballard) and Ashley (Zoë Belkin), about how they might plan her death and make it look like an accident.
Perfect Sisters is adapted from a book by Bob Mitchell, The Class Project, but screenwriters Fab Filippo and Adam Till never strike upon a settled, convincing tone. There are moments of engaging kinship and understanding between Sandra and Beth, but these feel due to Breslin and Henley’s chemistry and respective chops as much as anything else. The aforementioned Steve seems a character rented straight from Central Casting, and the girls’ aunt, Martha (Rusty Schwimmer), is never quite effectively developed as either a scold or a lifeline.
There’s a brief flirtation with refracting Sandra’s internalized damage through the attention and affection of a nice guy, David (Jonathan Malen), who doesn’t go to her school (“He’s so sweet, and I don’t know what to do with that,” says Sandra to her sister at one point), but the movie abandons this concentration, instead opting for stale domestic discord. Then, when the film should be gathering momentum, it becomes even more shrug-inducing, tripping into two-dimensional plotting and investigation, and expanding its characters and center of attention when it should be contracting and honing its vision. There’s no heart of darkness to Perfect Sisters, just an obvious tragedy told in obvious fashion.
If the adaptation feels out of focus, the direction doesn’t help mitigate those shortcomings. While Brooks works in a few stylistic gimmicks—horizontal split screens in a scene in which Beth seeks help from social services, and several sequences where an idealized version of the girls’ mother appears in a saturated glow—he and cinematographer Stéphanie Weber Biron otherwise fail to come up with a compelling visual scheme. The film is shot in a boxy, unappealing style, with flat staging and locked-down scenes that prevent any sense of accumulated dynamism.
Again, while Breslin and Henley deliver turns that make for an interesting handful of sequences, Brooks doesn’t put together the movie in a way that efficiently cedes them the stage, so that the movie might succeed as an actors’ piece. Sorvino, meanwhile, seems misdirected or left to hack through a bunch of wan notes on her own, deploying an awful Minnesotan-sounding accent that comes and goes. It’s not quite enough to make one wish for her character’s murder, but neither does anything else in Perfect Sisters elicit much of a response for protective concern.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annualand ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Stan Brooks
Writers: Fab Filippo, Adam Till
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Georgie Henley, Mira Sorvino, James Russo, Jeff Ballard, Zoë Belkin, Rusty Schwimmer, Jonathan Malen, Stephan James
Release Date: April 11, 2014