Time of Their Lives, by Rita Cannon
Stan Brooks, director of the new film Perfect Sisters, has had a long and prolific career as a producer of made-for-TV movies, many of which were inspired by true events. This new film, his first as director, is much the same. Based on the true tale of two Canadian teens who became known in the press as the “Bathtub Girls,” it follows sisters Sandra and Beth (Abigail Breslin and Georgie Henley) as they plot and execute the murder of their alcoholic mother (Mira Sorvino), with a disturbing amount of help from their friends at school. Brooks has said that he took inspiration from Peter Jackson’sHeavenly Creatures, another tale of murderous teenage girls with a weirdly insular relationship, but it takes a while for that film’s complexity and wicked sense of humor to show itself in Perfect Sisters. For the first forty minutes or so, Sisters plays more like one of the silly Lifetime movies Brooks might have produced a few years ago, complete with stilted dialogue, flat lighting, and plodding, and-then-this-happened pacing. Soon enough, though, the film turns a corner, and the forced melodrama recedes in favor of something much more affecting.
Like the protagonists of Jackson’s film, Sandra and Beth share a closeness that goes beyond normal friendship or even sisterhood. Growing up with unstable mother Linda and her string of abusive boyfriends, the girls have learned to lean on each other in order to survive. They speak to each other in a language of their own creation (as well as Dutch, though how they became fluent in that language is never explained), and retreat into a shared fantasy world in which their mother is everything she fails to be in real life: reliable, communicative, and well-groomed enough not to be an embarrassment. (Fantasy Linda wears a frilly pink dress, while Real Linda is usually sporting a bathrobe and dirty hair.) When she falls off the wagon for the umpteenth time and loses her job, it’s nothing they haven’t been though before. But when Linda announces they’ll be moving in with her latest beau (James Russo), a rage-filled creep who hits Linda and is growing increasingly sexually inappropriate with Beth, the sisters decide it’s the last straw. They hatch a plan to murder Mom – get her drunk, convince her to take a bath, then drown her and make it look like an accident, at which point they can collect her life insurance and move in with an aunt.
They discuss this plan openly with their friends, two of whom even take them out to dinner after the murder to provide them with an alibi. This stretch of the story is a little tough to sit through because it’s painted in such broad strokes. The discussion between the teens is actually too casual, devoid of even a slight frisson of danger or excitement; one scene has them meeting in an empty classroom and brainstorming on a chalkboard like the doctors on an episode of House. The scenes of abuse at home, while sincerely acted, are a little predictable in how they play out. Memories of better times are presented in gauzy, overwrought flashbacks of the girls and their mother running along a beach. It’s all pretty generic and cookie-cutter-feeling. It isn’t until the murder is actually committed, and the film’s focus shifts to how Sandra and Beth are emotionally affected by having gotten away with it, that the connect-the-dots structure is actually filled in with specific emotional detail.
While Beth seems reasonably sure that they did the right thing, Sandra is soon racked with guilt and acts out in ever more dangerous ways, eventually falling into the same pattern of substance abuse that afflicted Linda. Watching Sandra unravel puts some cracks in Beth’s resolve; even if she doesn’t feel guilty for killing her mother, she does regret the way it’s affected her sister. Their codependent relationship intensifies even further, but when their protective instincts ultimately prove unable to shield them from the long arm of the law, their bond is torn asunder in a way that’s painful to watch. It’s a credit to Breslin and Henley’s performances that even after seeing them behave so callously, we have a surprising amount of sympathy for the girls.
It didn’t come as a big surprise to me when Brooks revealed in an interview that Perfect Sisters was initially going to be made for television, but wound up being released theatrically so more of its moral ambiguity (and realistically profane dialogue) could be preserved. While watching the film, you can almost feel a switch get flipped halfway through, like Brooks has suddenly decided this is going to be in theaters and he’d better kick it up a notch. The only problem is that he never went back and fixed the first half.