A mother drives her two teen daughters to their new home. She's full of good cheer and tries to put an optimistic spin on the new environs, even though the girls are openly mocking her. What we don't know is that the mother has a serious drinking problem and can't hold a job. She also has a history of bringing home men who harass the girls and climb into bed with them. The girls have plans for mama, though. To snip a quote from a better movie, they are mad as hell and are not going to take it, anymore.
Stanley M. Brooks' Perfect Sisters stars Mira Sorvino as Linda, the pitiful mother of the scheming pair. She's the sort of single mom we know from movies and real life, brittle, still trying to be attractive in order to land a man who might take care of her, but slowly losing the battle with age and the bottle. She's immature and irresponsible, and at times it's her older daughter Sandra (Abigail Breslin), who seems the most mature member of the family, helping mom take baths and cheering her up after one of her endless drinking binges. Younger daughter Beth (Georgie Henley) likes to wear heavy black eyeliner and make snotty comments, but underneath her bold front she's a delicate soul who also needs to be protected by her big sister.After Beth is attacked by mom's latest boyfriend (played with heelish perfection by the always nasty James Russo), the girls begin seriously talking about eliminating mom from their lives. There's insurance money to collect, after all, and who needs to be felt up by mom's loser boyfriends?
The plan involves drowning mom in a bathtub, and making it look like she simply passed out while drunk. It's not a bad plan. They're always helping her bathe, anyway, and according to an item they find on the internet, it takes only four minutes to get the job done. They enlist a couple of friends from school to act as moral support, and spend weeks putting the plan into effect, or at least mustering up the courage to carry it out. When they finally bump mom off, they feel liberated. But the hidden lives of murderers have a way of surfacing, and Sandra starts showing signs of being a bit like Linda, drinking too much and running her mouth. It's only a matter of time before the sisters' ugly secret is revealed.
Perfect Sisters is based on a true case from 2003, and at times it feels like every true story of this type, where two people, either friends, or sisters, or brothers, conspire to kill someone. Sandra and Beth flip flop constantly as to who actually wields the power in their relationship, much like Dick and Perry from In Cold Blood, with Sandra seeming the tougher and smarter of the pair, and Beth seeming more conniving. Yet, once the deed is done, it's Beth who retains her composure, while Sandra loses her cool. Another true case similar to this one was turned into a film by Peter Jackson in 1994, Heavenly Creatures, which starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as a pair of teen friends who kill one of their mothers after she tries to separate them. The girls in that film reminded me a bit of the sisters in Perfect Sisters, in that they were motivated by the sort of over-sized emotional life that exists only in children. The difference was that the mother in Jackson's film was a mean old bat - you're tempted to cheer when the girls beat her to death with a brick - but Sorvino as Linda never seems deliberately cruel. She's just a pathetic drunk.
Sorvino is two decades removed from her heyday as an Oscar winner for Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and her biggest hit, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion (1997). Now in her late 40s, she still looks as bright and lovely as ever, but is convincing as a slightly careworn, middle-aged drunk. Somehow, although she's worked steadily, Sorvino's films have fallen way below the radar. This is a film that could possibly lead to more work, but then again, it may just lead to more troubled mom roles. There are scenes where the girls fantasize about Linda in a variety of mom guises, and Sorvino has fun with the different mom archetypes: the brownie making super homemaker mom; the hip yoga mom; and even some kind of rad rocker mom. There's another mom character that the girls fantasize about, perhaps a sort of reasonable mom that they know they'll never have. In these scenes, a suddenly sober Linda appears like an angel and speaks calmly to the girls, assuring them that she loves them. The fantasy scenes don't work to any great effect, not because Sorvino doesn't pull them off, but because they don't really fit the film.
Brooks, making his debut as a director after many years as a producer, moves unsteadily between one tone and another, trying to make too many types of film in one. At times the film has a kind of loopy, happy-go-lucky rhythm, at others it's bleak and morbid. When the girls make their beds, it's done in a kind of fast-motion silent film style, which adds nothing to the story. Another weakness in the film is that Breslin and Henley are simply too urbane to be entirely believable as a couple of dumb teen killers. Crimes of this nature are committed by naive people who don't understand the consequences to come. I never believed these sisters possessed the vacant, soulless demeanor required to pull off a matricide. Brooks shows them as being a little bitchy, that's all. At the film's end, when security guards separate them at the courthouse after the girls learn they are going to prison and aren't to be in contact for the duration of their sentences, the sisters begin kicking and screaming, as if they can't bear to be apart. This is meant to be an emotional scene, and Breslin and Henley give it their best shot, but since we'd never cared much for them in the first place, it's hard to care about them when they're separated.
More could have been done with the bleak Winnipeg landscape, and we could have been given a greater sense that the girls were simply a pair of sociopaths. As is, Brooks is too smitten with the idea that these glib, charming kids murdered their mom. There's even a scene where the girls go to a counselor to complain about Linda, but are told they don't have enough evidence, as if the murder of Linda was somehow the fault of a screwed up social services system. There's plenty of internet surfing and text messages, but rather than chilling us with how easy it is to learn the art of murder by searching on-line, it just feels like a generic movie about contemporary kids. Brooks certainly had the horses, though. Sorvino does a lot here, creating a full character even though she's asked only to look stupid and cry. Breslin, too, rises above the script. As the conflicted Sandra, she has the juiciest role in the movie, torn between pitying her mom's condition, and wanting to get rid of her. Like a typical girl in bloom, Sandra wants to be pretty (she has an excellent scene where she grills an admirer into telling her how beautiful she is, and seems genuinely stunned when he willingly plays along), but her simple trajectory into young adulthood is waylaid by the knowledge that killing aint easy.