Every generation rolls their eyes at the one after (who inevitably roll theirs back), but the striking thing about Dina Duma’s “Sisterhood,” which plants its eerily atmospheric growing-pains drama deep into Macedonian Gen-Z culture and lights it up with phone screens and insta posts, is how depressingly little the pressures of coming of age have changed. For girls especially, the narrow, rocky pass between “virgin” and “slut” is as treacherous ever, only now it can cave in with a click. This truism makes Duma’s well-crafted, adeptly performed debut something of a paradox: The striking presentation signals her arrival as an accomplished new filmmaker; the story is stomach-drop familiar to the point of “oh no, not this again.”
“Stop being a child,” says Jana (Mia Giraud) irritably to Maya (Antonia Belazelkoska), who is toying with a lizard as they laze in the sunshine after a quick dip in clear waters. These two BF-not-quite-Fs are inseparable, but already now there are indications of a fissure between them: Maya, the quiet, reserved one is content to cast shy glances down at the boys frolicking on the outcrop below; Jana goads her into jumping into the water from high up to get the attention of Kris (Hanis Bagashov), the one Maya likes. Maya wears a modest, sporty one-piece; Jana a bikini. They still participate in the pinky swears and double-dares of best friendship, but there is the definite sense that the sexually precocious Jana has won the race to adulthood and it’s down, now, to Maya to join her in leaping off that cliff, to start being worldly, to stop being a child.
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The third point in this tinderbox triangle of frenemyship is Elena, a girl in their class whom Jana side-eyes meanly for her reputation for being easy, who uploads twerking selfies to social media and who also buzzes around school jock Kris. At an illicit party Maya finally gets her chance with him, then backs out of sex at the last minute. But she can’t bring herself to lose face before Jana, and so claims they did the deed, which makes Kris then going off with Elena even more of an apparent snub.
The two girls catch Elena and Kris in a compromising video which Maya is persuaded to upload, naively thinking it might deal Kris some comeuppance, but it only makes him more swaggeringly popular. Elena is the one who is ruined, and it will lead to confrontation and tragedy and the bitter, abrupt end of Maya and Jana’s closeness.
“Sisterhood” is gorgeously shot, by DP Naum Doksevski, whose rich, fine-grained photography lends even the sunniest day an edge of menace, and makes dreamy, brooding work of the many underwater scenes (both girls are on the swim team). And the fine young actresses, both first-timers, are so in tune that whether tottering drunkenly to a party, or yelling out of the sunroof of a speeding car, all whipping long hair and hilarity, they become almost archetypes of the characters they play, symbols of reckless youth, dying to be rid of childish things. In the scenes of them ironing each other’s hair flat or applying each other’s lipstick or snickering together, heads conspiratorially tight in the blue light of a screen, they can look almost like reflections. A friend should, after all, be your truest mirror.
But if Jana is Maya’s mirror, the reflection is distorted. And as their petty act of spite in uploading the sex video of Elena comes back to haunt them, Duma’s script, co-written with Martin Ivanov — which has been so sure and steady, if not enormously unexpected, until now — starts to falter. Maya is conscience-stricken, miserable at what they have done, and not unaware of the hypocrisy that led her to out another girl for doing what Maya had only claimed, with disastrous consequences.
Jana, on the other hand, instantly turns into a cruel caricature, viciously self-interested, willing to weaponize all the confidences the pair shared to ensure Maya’s ongoing silence. And so Jana is abandoned by a script uninterested in when or how her maturation into a vaguely murderous Macedonian mean girl occurred, which stops the film short of being the more profound investigation it could have been.
Duma clearly has a way with young actors, and a confidence in classical storytelling that is impressive for a first-timer, all of which makes “Sisterhood” an impressively absorbing mood piece. But in the tale it actually tells, all it really proves is that when it comes to the dynamics of double standards, bullying and the thin line between intense love and intense rivalry that many passionate girlhood friendships walk, there is nothing new under the darkly sparkling Macedonian sun.
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