Horror is a uniquely cathartic genre...
...It gives us an avenue through which we can delve deeper into topics and ideas and concepts that might otherwise be uncomfortable to analyze. Horror helps us grow as individuals and affects change in our world by providing a space where we can confront our traumas and tackle cultural issues that need examination. The latter is exactly what the feature debut from writer/director Courtney Paige manages to do.
Written by Courtney Paige, Erin Hazlehurst, and Madison Smith, The Sinners revolves around a group of seven high school girls living in a small religious town. The girls have formed a group called The Sinners, with each girl representing one of the seven deadly sins. Grace Carver (Kaitlyn Bernard), who represents Lust, serves as the unofficial leader of the clique and the prime focus of the film. Because of their religious families, the girls have kept the existence of their group, along with some of their more villainous activities, secret from their parents and other adults in the community.
But Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn), the group member known as Pride because of her proud devotion to her religious virtues, poses a danger to the rest of the group’s reputation after confessing the existence of the Sinners to Pastor Dean Carver (Tahmoh Penikett), Grace’s father. As expected, Pastor Carver is disappointed in his daughter and her friends and tries to restrict Grace from spending time with the rest of the Sinners, hoping she will return to the path of God.
The other six girls concoct a plan to get back at Aubrey and convince her to keep her mouth shut. They kidnap Aubrey as part of a prank that goes too far. Aubrey manages to get away from the rest of the group, disappearing into the woods, but she never makes it home. After the prank, the rest of the girls start going missing, and the remaining Sinners are left to uncover the secrets of their small town.
The Sinners’ biggest strength lies primarily in its messaging, which seems uniquely suited for Women in Horror Month. At its core, The Sinners is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Grace and her crew are working to find themselves and their place in the world while pushing back against the expectations forced upon them by their families. Grace serves as the means of showing this struggle, and she’s pulled in various, sometimes opposing, directions based on what others assume her to be; her father expects her to be an ideal conservative Christian, while her classmates sexualize her, equating her with the sin of lust even though she’s still a virgin. Hearkening back to other high school horror films like The Craft, Grace becomes more confident about who she is and what she wants as the film goes on.
Serving as a twisted indictment of North American puritanism, The Sinners displays how toxic expectations created by religious and moral ideologies pose a danger to women. The need to maintain a façade of perfection first pits the girls against each other. Later, that desire for perfection leads to violence against them, forcing us to examine the struggle that women face in a culture that’s still questioning historical ideas of morality.
When it comes to performances in The Sinners, Kaitlyn Bernard and Brenna Llewellyn steal the show. Both actors add depth to their characters; Bernard embodies a powerful, young Grace who is determined to have her own agency in the world, while Llewellyn brings a truth to a devoutly religious character who wants nothing more than to do right by God. As opposing forces, the two manage to make the characters feel complex and real.
Despite a powerful message and characters, The Sinners has some glaring issues with tonal inconsistency that make it difficult to fully engage with the film. There are times when the film feels almost surreal, with strange, unexpected scenes and hazy shots that lend the film a dream-like quality that I completely dug. Other times it feels more like a soapy high-school drama à la popular shows like Riverdale, with characters acting in ways that seem irrational and over the top for that situation. While a different audience (likely the one intended for this film) may enjoy this soapier tone, its stark contrast to the more surreal bits pulled me out of the story.
The Sinners also suffers from a pacing and structural issue. The film spends a lot of time in the beginning developing the setting and the inciting incident that sets off the conflict in the story seems to come too late. Shortly after the prank gone wrong, the story shifts completely, and it suddenly becomes a thriller about a string of murders that lack any real buildup.
The potent message and strong performances mixed with the more surreal scenes showcase Courtney Paige’s directorial abilities. Despite the tonal and pacing problems present in The Sinners, I’m excited to see what Paige does next.
The Sinners comes to VOD from Brainstorm Media on February 19th.
By Tim Beirne
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