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THE SISTERHOOD OF NIGHT

Caryn Waechter’s debut feature has a distinguished pedigree: it was adapted by Marilyn Fu from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Millhauser. But while “The Sisterhood of Night” certainly has the ambition to be a poetic treatment of the angst that fills the lives of many teen girls (and its sometimes uncomfortable ramifications), in the end the film, while very nicely fashioned, winds up as an oddly prosaic cautionary tale dressed up in quasi-literary duds. The inspiration might be the Salem Witch Trials, but bringing the message they carry into the age of cyberbullying in the blogosphere gives things the air of an upscale afterschool special.

The setting is the small New York town of Kingston, where Mary Warren (Georgie Henley), a rebellious semi-goth high-schooler, undermines the drama audition of Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), a nervous sort who retaliates by stealing Mary’s phone and printing all her texts on the blog she’s anxious to expand. Mary responds not by retaliating via social media, but instead by going offline entirely—and recruiting select girls for a secret sisterhood that meets periodically in the woods at night. Her initial choices are Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) and Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell)—the one distraught over her parents’ recent divorce, the other worried about her ill mother—and in time she’ll add others to the roster; but she pointedly excludes Emily, who’s desperate for acceptance at all costs.

The slight leads Emily to follow the girls into the woods and then claim that the sisterhood is a sinister cult, given to strange nocturnal rituals with a distinctly sexual edge. The scandalous revelations cause widespread concern among parents, and will eventually have unfortunate professional ramifications for Gordy Gambhir (Kal Penn), the campus guidance counselor who tries to get at the truth (and serves as a narrator for us). But they have a positive effect on Emily’s blog, which becomes a magnet for young girls who claim to have been sexually abused and want to share their stories. They also win her support from some classmates, who falsely attest that they too were objects of the cult’s malevolent practices. Sarah (Morgan Turner), one of Emily’s more obnoxious followers, induces Travis (Deema Aitken), a cute guy fragile Lavinia is infatuated with, to induce her into the woods on Halloween night, where they humiliate her and post video of the altercation on the web. A tragic aftermath induces Emily to confess her lie, Mary to reveal what the sisterhood is all about, and the two to join in an expression of sisterly comradeship.

For the most part Fu and Waechter take this scenario very seriously, with only Penn on hand to add some mild levity to the proceedings with his wry delivery and engaging air. But while the young cast—especially Henley, who’s able to express an almost scarily intense attitude while maintaining an undercurrent of vulnerability—are almost uniformly excellent (the exceptions being Hayward and Turner, who can’t shake an amateurish feel), the plot often comes across as scattered. There’s a subplot involving Mary’s relationship to Jeff (Evan Kuzma), a pleasant classmate with a bent for photography; but nothing comes of it. And Emily’s entire turnaround comes across as a literary conceit rather than a plausible outcome. (Her mother Sue, played as a religious zealot by Jessica Hecht, is also drawn rather broadly, as is Lavinia’s hysterical mother Rose, played by Laura Fraser.)

In portraying the sisterhood’s activities, moreover, Waechter strives for a level of strange beauty she never achieves. Watching Mary and her cohorts gamboling about in flowing robes has about the same effect that the springtime activities of the residents of Sommerisle did in “The Wicker Man”—less enthralling than slightly absurd.

Still, in comparison to other films about teens trying to cope with the pressures of school and home, “The Sisterhood of Night” is notable for its ambition and refusal to resort to easy tropes. If it doesn’t quite surmount all the obstacles inherent in the genre, at least it tries.

CUT BANK

Less “Fargo Lite” than “Fargo Flat,” “Cut Bank” tries to transfer to Montana the same sort of dark, quirky, distinctly nefarious humor that the Coens situated in North Dakota, but the result is an unappetizing brew that wastes the talents of a fine cast.

The film is the work of two television veterans—writer Roberto Patino (“Sons of Anarchy”) and director Matt Shakman (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as well as a couple of episodes in the “Fargo” mini-series). It starts with the apparent murder of postman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) on an isolated rural road. But the killing is accidentally filmed from an adjacent field by Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth), who happens to be helping his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) practice her routine for the upcoming Miss Cut Bank contest.

After conferring with Cassandra’s domineering father Big Stan Steeley (Billy Bob Thornton), in whose garage he also works, Dwayne turns the incriminating footage over to Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich). Other folks who become involved in the plot include a giant-sized Indian called Match (David Burke), a postal inspector named Joe (Oliver Platt) and—most importantly—a reclusive fellow named Darby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s obsessed with locating a parcel that was lost in Georgie’s undelivered mail.

It wouldn’t do to reveal too much of what follows; suffice it to say that one of the characters is the story’s equivalent of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, trying to pull off a scam (involving the reward for helping to resolve the killing of a postal employee) that gets him into deeper and deeper trouble, while Sheriff Vogel is a stand-in for Marge Gunderson. But the comparisons only serve to emphasize how pallid “Cut Bank” is beside “Fargo.”

Vogel, for example, is effectively characterized by two quirks: one is his squeamishness around blood (though he seems to conquer it pretty quickly as bodies pile up) and the other is carrying around a rabbit-foot key chain. Even as skilled an actor as Malkovich can’t make much of those. Thornton is similarly stymied by dialogue so stilted that it can barely be delivered, let alone invested with comic gold, and Stuhlbarg by a catalogue of tics (coke-bottle glasses, a stutter, a perpetually downcast expression).

Meanwhile Hemsworth is unbelievably stolid and dull, as if overburdened not only by Dwayne’s devotion to a seriously ill father but by a script that gives the character no emotional heft. Only Dern and Platt escape the general malaise by overplaying broadly; none of the subtlety of the former’s work in “Nebraska” is to be found on this occasion, even though Georgie Wits and Woody Grant are both Montanans, and Platt mimics his oversized turn in the televised “Fargo” as the brash government man. In what is essentially a male-oriented film, Palmer is wasted in a thankless sweet-young-thing role. The technical credits are uniformly adequate without being in any sense exceptional, though cinematographer Ben Richardson makes decent use of the Canadian locations (the film was shot there rather than in Montana).

“Cut Bank” does offer the opportunity to watch some solid veteran actors in extended roles, and all of them provide occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s just unfortunate that Patino didn’t give them better material to work with, and that Shakman doesn’t present their performances with much style. This is a thoroughly pedestrian stroll through Coen brothers territory.