The Sinners makes literal an idea that has been floating around ever since men first decided they were in charge – women are, by their very nature, bad and must be kept in line accordingly. Courtney Paige, the Canadian actress who’s appeared in the likes of Psych and The Arrangement, makes her directorial debut with a modern tale of seven young women who rebel against their tight-knit religious community after being ungraciously dubbed “The Sins.” Each one represents her own sin, you see, whether it’s lust, greed, or vanity and each is equally guilty of flying in the face of God’s plan. Suffice to say, once these ladies decide they’ve had enough, heads begin to roll.
Related: Courtney Paige Discusses The Sinners [Interview]
A sickly stylish image of a beautiful corpse with a rose in its mouth is one of the first things we see in The Sinners, setting the tone for what’s to come. This is Aubrey (Brenna Llewellyn, impressive in her first major role), also our narrator. She’s the most dedicated of all seven, someone who has two bibles – one for home, one for school – and who can’t even bring herself to utter the word “hell” in her own head, but whose devotion ultimately costs her the trust of her sisters. Aubrey’s fate is left tantalizingly vague until the movie’s denouement, providing a strange kind of murder mystery angle.
Group leader Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard, ethereal but calculated) is struggling with her sexuality due to an ongoing secret relationship with another Sin, Tori (fellow newcomer Brenna Coates). Their bathroom dalliances are lovingly, rather than leeringly, photographed, Paige handling the relationship with a light touch. She doesn’t hammer home the point that these two are queer, or even attempt to rationalize what’s going between them and what it means in a greater sense. Instead, Grace and Tori simply love each other and want to be together, just like any other teen relationship.
Of course, since certain girls are engaging in inappropriate behavior unrelated to their assigned Sin, things begin to get a bit messy, particularly as Grace rebels against her super-strict pastor father and decides to make an example of Aubrey, who’s betrayed the group in order to retain her purity. This leads to plenty of sashaying about the corridors of their catholic all-girls school in non-regulation uniforms while the rip-off Billie Eilish soundtrack pulses alongside. The Sinners is most effective in these moments, as we get to know the girls and figure out what Grace’s true motives really are.
The film is being marketed as a kind of slasher hybrid but, really, it’s the furthest thing from it. The body count is too low to qualify while blood and gore is kept to a minimum to ensure the target audience – teen girls around the same age as Paige’s protagonists – can see the movie without issue. If this were a slasher, Grace would be the Final Girl since she’s a virgin, and the Black Hood himself, Riverdale’s Lochlyn Munro, would be the killer rather than a no-good city cop who shows up and starts messing around in the ongoing investigation into Aubrey’s disappearance.
Plainly, solving the mystery isn’t nearly as much fun as spending quality time with the seven Sins, whose friendship feels lived in and organic. Each actress makes her mark, but Llewellyn, Bernard and Coates are standouts. Bernard, especially, does an eloquent job of presenting Grace’s many competing traits from good girl at home where there are three crucifixes hanging on one wall, to troublemaker at school, gang leader – “tell your mother about your cult!” her father rails during dinner one night – and burgeoning girlfriend, even if her relationship with Tori must be kept behind closed doors.
Unlike many other girl power style movies, The Sinners allows its female protagonists to do the wrong thing sometimes. They’re still teenagers, so they make plenty of mistakes, particularly in the beginning when things initially start to go south, but Paige and her co-writers Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith aren’t interested in punishing these women for their indiscretions. They’re on the side of the Sins, even when everybody else turns against them, which is what makes the film really sing. The strongest element is the girls themselves, regardless of their actions.
The script is smart, with several throwaway lines signaling that the Sins aren’t held in the highest regard even though they might seem like the most popular girls in school – Aubrey is told early on, by a mousy classmate, that they’re “no good” – without being annoyingly self-referential. The religious element is strong and comfortably knitted into the fabric of the story, as opposed to feeling tacked-on for shock value. The small town of Kelowna, BC, where Paige herself is originally from, provides plenty of stunning scenery while still feeling repressively hemmed-in by its tight borders.
There is a sense that The Sinners needs to be either wackier or slightly more serious to truly connect, but perhaps its Riverdale / Pretty Little Liars-lite vibe was precisely the point. References to Jawbreaker, The Craft, and even the unfairly derided 2009 Sorority Row remake abound, but the closest recent comparison is something like Tragedy Girls. That was a spunkier take on teen rebellion, the Sour Patch Kid to this film’s sweeter offering, but it was also aimed at an R-rated audience. Paige should be commended for making a teen movie for teens.
Related: Kaitlyn Bernard and Brenna Llewellyn Talk The Sinners [Interview]
The Sinners is a bit rough around the edges, slightly unfocused, and too densely plotted at times but there’s plenty of style and slickness to it also and the performances each herald major stars on the rise. The ending may be slightly unsatisfying, but considering the murder-mystery element plays second fiddle to the relationship conflict anyway, and rightly so, that isn’t a major complaint either. As a debut feature, it’s hugely accomplished and very impressively staged. More importantly, it’s 100 percent female-focused, female-led, and female-created and that is worth celebrating above all else.
Catch The Sinners On Demand from February 19, 2021
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Courtney Paige
Writer(s): Courtney Paige, Erin Hazlehurst, Madison Smith
Stars: Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Llewellyn, Brenna Coates, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Jasmine Randhawa, Carly Fawcett, Natalie Malaika, Aleks Paunovic, Lochlyn Munro
Release date: February 19, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Globetrotter Pictures
Run Time: 88 minutes
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