Title: “Perfect Sisters” (IMDb)
Genre: crime drama
Stars: Abigail Breslin, Spencer Breslin, Georgie Henley, James Russo, Zak Santiago, Rusty Schwimmer, Mira Sorvino
Director: Stanley Brooks
Producers: JuliJette / Stan and Deliver Films
Running time: 102 minutes
I don’t know the real story and characters of “Perfect Sisters.” I haven’t read Bob Mitchell’s book The Class Project. So I will confine my comments to this film adaptation. I hesitated to see it because of its dark plot – two sisters drowning their mother in a bathtub. I’ve seen “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Michael Collins” (1996), and “The Pianist” (2002). I am no stranger to dark films that tell true stories. Yet I did not know which moral angle the director would take with the convicted sisters. Would they be seen as murderers or as victims?
I had little to fear. This film rightly presents the girls as both. “Perfect Sisters” is about the tragedy of a broken family – two bright teen girls Sandra (Abigail Breslin) and Beth (Georgie Henley) taking care of their mother Linda (Mira Sorvino) and little brother Bobby long after their parents’ divorce because Linda the only adult can’t take care of herself or her children. She can’t keep a job or a place to live because she’s constantly drinking. Linda can’t find a decent boyfriend either. Bowman (James Russo), a hardened man of violent outbursts, is the latest in a series of bad boyfriends since Linda divorced the girls’ dad. He physically abuses Linda and Bobby, sometimes sexually abusing Beth. I found those scenes hard to watch.
Because Linda is incapable of leading the family, her daughters Sandra and Beth must take her place as the responsible one. A happy, exhibitionist Sandra believes their mother can change; a hardened and depressed Beth does not and takes every opportunity to ridicule her. Yet they don’t want to be the parents. Sandra and Beth fantasize of a mother who is normal, sober, and responsible so they can be free to become just normal teenagers, to finish their academic studies and follow their dreams. The sisters also return to happy family memories when they were younger, when they and their parents plucked seashells from the beach.
Bowman’s continual abuse, violent outbursts, and insidious suggestion that the family move into his place are what prompt Sandra and Beth to take matters into their own hands. They can’t handle their mother’s irresponsibility anymore. They’re also tired of being turned down after seeking outside help – first from an abuse hotline, then from their dad, and finally from Aunt Martha (Rusty Schwimmer).
The sisters’ unethical and illegal decision to kill their mother begins here. They could have found another course of action besides murder. Sandra observes early in the film, after the family has moved to a new town and a seemingly new life, that a hamster in a cage will kill her babies to spare them pain. This analogy is a key to understanding some aspects of the sisters’ murder.
Still, Sandra and Beth make the gravest mistake of their life by focusing on their pain rather than their mother’s. The whole family is hurting and their pain should not be mocked or belittled. They’re just not a real family anymore. Linda needs serious outside help in order to take responsibility and become a real mother. Her three children also need a good father. But none of this happens.
Once the fantasy of Sandra and Beth having a real mother ends, another begins – this one much darker. With help from their friends Justin (Jeffrey Ballard) and Ashley (Zoe Belkin), they hatch the plot to kill their mother. We learn in silly fantasy vignettes, one after another, why being Linda’s gassed in the garage, falling down the stairs, or being set on fire just won’t work. The final plot the four teens decide on – to drown Linda in a bathtub for four minutes after Beth drugs her for hours on pills and alcohol – is so fantastical that rich and popular Ashley can’t believe this isn’t a game of make-believe.
Once the deed is done – with Beth drugging their mother, Sandra drowning her, and Beth making the fake 911 call – the sisters indulge in wild parties. Sandra also blabs to her friends and new boyfriend about the murder, news that quickly spreads through the school. Whether they’re experiencing joy in new-found freedom (Beth), or grief for an act they initially hatched as a fantasy (Sandra), the sisters just try to cope. They want the fantasy of life without their mother, and getting away with the murder, never to end.
The police’s entrance into this situation, thanks to a phone call by a family friend named David (Jonathan Malen) and an undercover sting operation led by Detective Gates (Zak Santiago), dramatically destroys the sisters’ illusions. The small life they had with their mother and her boyfriend, gradually expanded by parties with their classmates and friends, is exploded in the packed courtroom scenes. The fantasies end and reality intrudes when justice is served. Sandra and Beth must deal with an outside perspective on their deeds, one that says other minors had endured worse pain but didn’t resort to murder.
In the final, emotionally raw scenes Sandra and Beth are dragged apart by police officers to serve ten-year sentences without any contact. The sisters who swore they’d look out for each other must now face the consequences of their murder of their mother alone. As Alex says in her review, “The relations between the girls were so real that for a moment I thought they were going to break the arms of the men that were holding them back. They screamed for each other and it was so real.”
The fantasy aspects of this film were extraordinary and original, bright images masking the pain of reality. The cinematography in the courtroom scenes, thanks to Stephanie Weber-Biron, also astounded me. At one point, the camera focuses on the words ‘justice’ (left) and ‘mercy’ (right) behind the judge’s head. As he delivers his sentence on the sisters, the camera focuses on ‘justice.’ Sandra and Beth find no mercy here. The original score by Carmen Rizzo was also beautiful and haunting, with “The Worst Part” written by Abigail Breslin’s band CABB.
I noticed two interesting tidbits in this film. First, Beth’s fake ID is actually a photo of Georgie Henley at the Alberta Ferretti fashion show in January 2011. A home video of Sandra and Beth at the beach when they were younger is real footage of Georgie’s older sisters Rachael and Laura. Alex also noted that a photo of Sandra on a school folder is actually from Abigail Breslin’s photo shoot for “Janie Jones” (2011) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Georgie and Abigail’s mothers were thanked in the credits.
I also hesitated to watch “Perfect Sisters” because of Georgie Henley’s much darker role than that of innocent Lucy in “The Chronicles of Narnia” (2005, 2008, 2010). I didn’t know if I could handle the on-screen changes, of Georgie handling adult material. Yet once again I had little to fear. Georgie delivers the finest performance in this film, the finest of her career.
I’ve seen a younger Abigail Breslin in “Raising Helen” (2004), “No Reservations” (2007), “Definitely Maybe” (2008), and “My Sister’s Keeper” (2009). She handles adult material in “Perfect Sisters” well: flashing her bra a few times, kissing her boyfriend in public, and binge drinking at a party. As older sister Sandra, the eldest in the family, Abigail convinces us she loves her mother but also wants what is best for her siblings. She seems heartbroken and out of control after she drowns her mother, even more so when the sisters are forcibly parted after the sentencing at the end of the film. Yet I never forgot that Sandra was just an older, more mature Abigail Breslin.
I’ve seen Mira Sorvino in a few films as well: “The Buccaneers” (1995), “At First Sight” (1999), “The Final Cut” (2004), and “Like Dandelion Dust” (2009). Mira’s role as the alcoholic mother Linda probably comes closest to the last film, a role I found more admirable than Linda since she chooses to do the right thing for her son and give him away. She doesn’t have problems with irresponsibility or substance abuse either. I’ve never seen Mira Sorvino play such a sad, pathetic character as Linda – a woman I still sympathized with because she was trying to help her family survive, even though miserably failing. Why do these battered women insist on staying with their deadbeat, violent boyfriends? Still, I never forgot that Linda was an older, more mature Mira Sorvino.
Unlike Abigail and Mira, nowhere in “Perfect Sisters” could I find the beautiful, innocent, and fun-loving Georgie Henley. Neither could I find the sweet Lucy of Narnia or the dreaming Jane of “Jane Eyre” (2006). All I saw was a depressed and murderous Beth. Georgie just disappears. She smokes, drinks, swears, and kisses her boyfriend Justin in public a few times. No Disney-like Suspian plot here! Gothic hair, makeup, and clothing – plus an excellent Canadian accent – complete the character of Beth, a hardened teenager with few inhibitions and maternal feelings.
I consider only chameleons true actors. Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, and Meryl Streep are the best of the best in this business. As Beth Anderson in “Perfect Sisters,” Georgie Henley can proudly take her rightful place beside them. She deserves every nomination she receives – and I hope a few wins!
The supporting cast was amazing! Zak Santiago plays a passionate one-eyed Detective Gates, with two eyes into this crime. Lorraine James plays the representative from Social Services who offers the sisters advice and tells them they can live with their Aunt Martha. She’s played by the talented Rusty Schwimmer. Zoe Belkin (Ashley), Jeffrey Ballard (Justin), Jonathan Malen (David), and Stephan James (Donny) admirably play Sandra and Beth’s friends – the second and fourth ones as the sisters’ boyfriends. I really liked that Malen’s character was such a gentleman – doing the right thing as an act of love, even if it cost him his relationship with Sandra. And James Russo as Bowman? He scared the daylights out of me!
The directorial debut of Stanley Brooks in “Perfect Sisters” is a work of art in plotting, characterization, and cinematography. He needs to direct more films! Georgie Henley should receive more adult acting work as well. She’s proved she can handle different characters and accents, becoming someone other than herself.
Because of its adult content, language (frequent use of the F- word), themes, and some partial nudity I think “Perfect Sisters” (2012) will be rated PG-13 or R in the United States, 15 in other countries. We’re still waiting for an official trailer and poster, plus news on the film’s status at TIFF this September. Please follow “Perfect Sisters” on IMDb and on Facebook (look up ‘The Class Project’) for the latest news.
Images: ET Canada / Carmen Rizzo / Elle & Jae