Review: ‘The Sinners’ (2021), starring Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates, Brenna Llewellyn, Aleks Paunovic, Lochlyn Munro, Michael Eklund and Tahmoh Penikett

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Brenna Llewellyn, Natalie Malaika, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Jasmine Randhawa, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brenna Coates and Carly Fawcett in “The Sinners.” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“The Sinners” (2021)

Directed by Courtney Paige

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the horror flick “The Sinners” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of color) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: In a conservative Christian town, seven teenage girls form a cult-like clique where they each represent the seven deadly sins, and then members of the group start getting murdered.

Culture Audience: “The Sinners” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in independent horror films that are suspenseful and make the most out of their low budgets.

A scene from “The Sinners.” Pictured in front row, from left to right: Carly Fawcett, Kaitlyn Bernard and Natalie Malaika. Pictured in second row, from left to right: Jasmine Randhawa, Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Brenna Coates and Brenna Llewellyn. (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

Before anyone dismisses “The Sinners” as just another horror movie where a bunch of teenagers get murdered, consider that it skillfully takes on religious bigotry and sexual oppression while balancing it with an intriguing mystery, gruesome horror and even some touches of comedy. It’s not an easy balancing act, but “The Sinners” mostly succeeds in being a memorable independent horror film in a sea of mindless slasher flicks.

“The Sinners” is the feature-film directorial debut of Courtney Paige, who wrote the screenplay with Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith. Paige is also an actress, which might explain why the casting is better than most low-budget movies of this type. Some of the acting is amateurish, but the dynamics between the actors look more authentic and natural than a lot of horror movies that could care less about character development or chemistry between the actors.

The story of “The Sinners” centers on a clique of seven girls who are classmates in their last year at a Christian high school in an unnamed city in North America. (The movie was actually filmed in Paige’s Canadian hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia.) These teenagers call themselves The Sins, and they have each assigned themselves to represent one of the seven deadly sins. They are:

  • Grace Carver (played by Kaitlyn Bernard), the group’s assertive blonde leader, represents the sin of lust. It’s ironic because Grace, who is the child of a strict pastor, is a virgin, but she has a secret love that’s considered taboo in her religion.
  • Tori Davidson (played by Brenna Coates), who sometimes dresses as an emo or Goth, represents the sin of wrath. She’s the tough-talking rebel of the group, and she’s in a secretive romance with Grace.
  • Katie Hamilton (played by Keilani Elizabeth Rose), who is very spoiled and materialistic, represents the sin of greed. She likes to make others feel inferior by bragging about what her wealth can buy her.
  • Molly McIvor (played by Carli Fawcett), a compulsive eater, represents the sin of gluttony. She is very self-conscious about her looks because she’s not as thin as the other girls in the group.
  • Robyn Pearce (played by Natalie Malaika), a passive follower, represents the sin of sloth. She wants to go to a good college but is too lazy to study, so she cheats instead.
  • Stacey Rodgers (played by Jasmine Randhawa), who often compares herself to other people, represents the sin of envy. Her loyalty depends on what she can get out of it.
  • Aubrey Miller (played by Brenna Llewellyn), a quiet redhead who becomes a target for the others’ bullying, represents the sin of pride. The other members of the Sins turn on Aubrey when Grace decides that Aubrey is a snitch.

Aubrey is the narrator of the movie, which opens with a scene of Aubrey being kidnapped by the other Sins, who are wearing masks. This kidnapping ends up being the catalyst for much of the the horror that happens in the last third of the film, when certain members of the Sins are murdered, one by one. This isn’t a slasher film where the murderer is revealed from the beginning. There are several people who could be suspects.

Out of all the members of the Sins, Grace is the one whose home life is shown the most. She lives with her parents and three siblings in a very oppressive and religious home ruled over by her father Pastor Dean Carver (played by Tahmoh Penikett), who demands that everything has to be done his way. Grace’s mother Brenda Carver (played by Loretta Walsh) is passive, but she has compassion and often acts as a peacemaker when Dean and Grace get into arguments.

Grace’s older sister Hannah (played by Karis Cameron) sometimes shares Grace’s tendency to be sarcastic and rebellious. By contrast, their younger teenage brother Luke Carver (played by Maxwell Haynes) wants to be the family’s “goody-two-shoes” child and is ready to tattle on Grace and Hannah to their father if he sees them doing anything wrong. The youngest child in the family is a baby boy, who’s briefly seen in the movie and whose name is not mentioned.

At the beginning of the movie, Grace has broken up with a fellow student named Kit Anderson (played by Dylan Playfair), who is still pining for Grace because he keeps calling her and trying to get back together with her. Some of the students, including the other members of the Sins, are aware that Grace and Tori are more than friends. However, Kit is in denial that Grace could be a member of the LGBTQ community and ignores the rumors that are swirling about Grace’s sexuality.

Grace and Tori have to keep their romance a secret, because they go to a religious high school (where all the students wear uniforms and have classes where they study the Bible) and they live in a very conservative Christian community. Tori and Grace canoodle in bathroom stalls at school, and their study sessions in Grace’s bedroom have some snuggling and kissing. Grace’s pastor father doesn’t really approve of Tori, who’s the type of student who will get sent to the principal’s office for blurting out impatiently in class: “Jesus, are you done?”

Grace’s father also doesn’t really approve of Grace’s part-time after-school job working at a flower stand called Andy’s Flower Stream. The business, which operates out of an Airstream trailer, is owned by a bohemian type named Andy Lund (played by James Neate), who’s a laid-back and friendly boss. Andy lives in the trailer with his hippie-ish girlfriend Summer Dobson (played by Jen Araki), who encourages Grace to walk in bare feet and feel “love and light.”

In a voiceover, Aubrey says about Summer, who used to be Aubrey’s babysitter: “I always had a creepy feeling about her. You know the people who always claim ‘light and love and positive.’ Well, they’re usually the most broken.” But the person Aubrey dislikes the most is Tori, because she thinks Tori is a hateful bully.

The top law enforcement official in town is Sherriff Fred Middleton (played by Aleks Paunovic), who provides some of the movie’s comic relief because he tries to be imposing but he’s really kind of a goofball. He’s first seen in the movie when he shows up in the empty classroom where his wife Maggie Middleton (played by Elysia Rotaru) is a teacher at the high school. (Maggie is also Andy’s sister.)

Maggie walks in the classroom and tells Fred, as she unbuttons her blouse, that they have nine minutes before the students arrive for the next class. Fred and Maggie, who’ve been trying to start a family, end up having quickie sex in the classroom. It’s played for laughs because Aubrey, who sees Fred leave the classroom and guesses what he had been doing there, asks him what he has on his collar. He quickly looks to see if a stain is there (there isn’t) and figures out that Aubrey was just trying to embarrass him when she tells him that she tried to go into the classroom but the door was locked.

Aubrey keeps a journal of her innermost thoughts. And all hell breaks loose when Tori and Kathy steal Aubrey’s journal. Certain incidents lead the other Sins to believe that Aubrey has been snitching on them. And when they find out what Aubrey has to say about them in the journal, their suspicions seem to be confirmed.

First, they lure Aubrey into a “study group” session which turns out to be an excuse to harass and haze her. Then, they kidnap Aubrey and take her to a remote wooded area, where things spiral out of control, but Aubrey manages to escape and goes missing. And then, other members of the Sins start to disappear and are brutally murdered.

Sheriff Middleton and his Deputy Douglas Sanders (played by Taylor St. Pierre) end up clashing with the higher-level government detectives who are sent to investigate the murders. The outside investigators are Detective Zankowski (played Michael Eklund) and Detective O’Ryan (played by Lochlyn Munro), who treat the sheriff and the deputy like incompetent yokels. Middleton and Sanders think that they’re being undermined by arrogant big-city types who don’t know the community. Meanwhile, as these two factions have their power struggle, more of the Sins get killed.

“The Sinners” makes great use of cinematography by Stirling Bancroft to create an atmosphere of foreboding beneath the pristine and orderly exterior of this suburban community. (There’s a recurring image of a rose stuck in the mouth of dead girl that’s particularly striking. It’s probably why the move was originally titled “The Color Rose.”) The movie’s production design and costume design are well-done, given the film’s small budget. And the whodunit aspect of the mystery is not as predictable as viewers might think it is.

There’s only one scene in the movie that seems awkward and out-of-place. It involves Grace having a secret occult meeting with two women and one man who look at least 10 years older than she is. It’s never explained how a sheltered preacher’s kid like Grace came to find these people or how long she’s known them. And the scene ends up being irrelevant, given what happens at the end of the movie.

The actresses who portray the seven Sins are convincing as a pack of “mean girls” who are “frenemies,” with their loyalty to each other always in question. As Tori, Coates stands out with having the most realistic acting and also the most obviously complicated character. On the one hand, Tori is exactly the type of bully that Aubrey despises. On the other hand, Tori has a very tough-but-tender side to her that’s loving with Grace and very protective of her. Their secret romance adds another layer of terror and anxiety in the story, since the unforgiving homophobia in their community makes Grace and Tori afraid to be open about the true nature of their relationship.

“The Sinners” is definitely not a horror classic on the level of director David Fincher’s 1995 film “Seven,” another macabre thriller with the seven deadly sins as its theme. As far as slasher films go, “The Sinners” can be considered slightly better than most. And it’s also a promising feature directorial debut for Paige, who shows she has a knack for telling a gripping horror story in a way that can capture people’s interest from beginning to end.

Brainstorm Media released “The Sinners” on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

Review: ‘2 Hearts,’ starring Jacob Elordi, Tiera Skovbye, Adan Canto and Radha Mitchell

October 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tiera Skovbye and Jacob Elordi in “2 Hearts” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“2 Hearts”

Directed by Lance Hool

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of North America, the romantic drama “2 Hearts” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two couples from two different generations experience health problems that have far-reaching effects on them and other people.

Culture Audience: “2 Hearts” will appeal primarily to people who like very sappy tearjerkers.

Adan Canto and Radha Mitchell in “2 Hearts” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

Even though the romantic drama “2 Hearts” is based on a true story, there’s a cloying sheen to the movie that makes the people look too glossy to be authentic. The entire movie looks like actors trying their best to re-enact what they think the real people actually went through, instead of giving naturalistic performances that transform these actors into believable people on screen. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue sounds like it’s from a TV soap opera or a Hallmark TV movie. “2 Hearts” certainly has an inspiring message. It’s just unfortunate that it’s delivered in a very uninspired and trite manner by a very corny screenplay and some awkward acting.

According to the production notes for “2 Hearts” (a movie that takes place in various parts of North America over five decades), the movie originally had what director Lance Hool says was “a very long and accurate screenplay” that went through several rewrites and was eventually rejected. Lance Hool’s daughter Veronica Hool and Robin U. Russin ended up writing the screenplay that was used for the movie. And it’s that screenplay which is the movie’s weakest link.

Lance Hool produced “2 Hearts” with his brother Conrad Hool, and they both run the movie’s production company Silver Lion Films. Conrad’s daughter Carla Hool was the casting director for “2 Hearts.” It’s unknown if having all of these family members involved in making “2 Hearts” could have clouded their objectivity in critiquing another family member’s work on the screenplay. But somewhere along the line, the producers didn’t have enough fortitude to take a good, hard look at the screenplay written by Veronica Hool and Russin and ask for major improvements before this film got made.

The entire movie has major tonal problems, by trying to be a screwball romantic comedy in some scenes, and yet in other scenes, it’s a weepy medical drama. “2 Hearts” is mostly a drama, but its attempts at comedy fall very hard and very flat. The decision to have one of the characters narrate the film in an irritating way is an example of how it’s sometimes better for movies to “show, not tell.”

And there’s a “twist” in the movie that is completely unnecessary. At best, this twist looks like the screenwriters needed more scenes to fill up the movie and make it closer to a typical feature length of 90 to 120 minutes. At worst, this twist is smarmy emotional manipulation, just for the sake of shocking an audience and making sensitive viewers cry. By the time the twist is revealed in the last third of the movie, astute viewers have already figured out how the two couples who are the movie’s four main characters are connected to each other.

“2 Hearts” switches back and forth in telling the stories of these two couples, but the movie is narrated by Chris Gregory (played by Jacob Elordi), the male partner from the younger couple. Chris is a tall, good-looking, athletic guy who’s 18 or 19 years old, with a goofy personality and a “puppy dog” type of enthusiasm toward life. At the beginning of the movie, Chris is seen being rushed into an emergency room. His girlfriend Samantha, nicknamed Sam (played by Tiera Skovbye), and Chris’ older brother Colin (played by Jordan Burtchett) are frantically running next to the gurney that’s carrying Chris into an examination room, until Sam and Colin aren’t allowed to go any further into the room.

What caused this medical emergency? And what were the results after Chris got medical treatment at the hospital? Those answers don’t come until the last third of the movie, but from then on, the movie has already telegraphed that Chris is not as healthy as he first appears to be in the first two-thirds of the film.

And then, when the movie introduces viewers to the other couple in the story, and it’s shown that the male partner in that couple also has health problems, it’s very easy to see where this movie is going to go. Perhaps if “2 Hearts” didn’t show Chris’ medical crisis so early in the story, the connection between the couples wouldn’t be so obvious.

Until then, it’s an often-tedious march to that inevitable “reveal,” which is not the same as the manipulative “twist” in the story. The “reveal” is obvious and necessary. The “twist” is not obvious and is very unnecessary. Until the “twist” and the “reveal” happen, the majority of “2 Hearts” is about showing how these two couples, who don’t know each other, met and fell in love with their respective partners.

Chris and Sam, the couple from the emergency-room scene, met because they’re students at Loyola University, a Jesuit college in New Orleans, not to be confused with Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, which is Chris’ hometown. When Chris and Sam meet in 2007, he is a freshman, and she is a senior at the university. They both come from loving, middle-class families.

The other two lovebirds are Jorge Bolivar (played by Adan Canto) and Leslie Folk (played by Radha Mitchell), who met on a Pan Am flight in the 1970s, when Leslie was a flight attendant and Jorge was a passenger. Jorge comes from a wealthy Cuban family that owns a mega-successful rum company. (The Jorge character is based on the real-life Jorge Bacardi.)

Jorge and Leslie, who were both in their 30s when they met, have a “meet cute” moment when Jorge asks Leslie to hold his hand during takeoff because he pretends to be nervous about flying. After some hesitation, she grants his request. And it’s clear from the way that they look at each other that it won’t take them long to get together.

When the subject of drinking alcohol comes up during the flight (since Jorge is supposedly nervous about flying), Leslie tells Jorge that her favorite brand of rum is Bolivar, and he gives her his business card. That’s how she finds out that he comes from the wealthy family that owns the Bolivar rum company. Who really knows if that happened in real life? But it’s one of those moments that looks like it was created for the movie.

Although Jorge and Leslie are both based in Miami, they have a long-distance courtship because they both travel a lot for their jobs. As soon as they begin dating, Jorge often shows up unannounced at destinations where Leslie will be, and he expects her to drop any plans she had so that she can spend all of her free time hanging out with him. While many people would be creeped-out by this presumptive and stalker-ish behavior, Leslie finds it charming and romantic. It probably doesn’t hurt that Jorge is handsome and rich.

And Jorge doesn’t tell Leslie his medical secret until long after they start dating. He’s had a serious lung disease since childhood. His lung problem is so serious that doctors had told his parents that Jorge wouldn’t live past the age of 12. Jorge has had numerous surgeries, and parts of his lungs were removed when he was an undergraduate student at Stanford University. After Jorge and Leslie get married, they have problems conceiving children. (In real life, Jorge was diagnosed with primary ciliary dyskinesia when he was in his 50s, but prior to that, he was misdiagnosed as having cystic fibrosis.)

Chris and Sam’s romance is more carefree than Jorge and Leslie’s. That is, until Chris ends up in the hospital. Chris and Sam’s “meet cute” moment happens as he accidentally bumps into her while he’s leaving a classroom and as she’s entering the same room. Chris makes a profuse apology, which she accepts, and he looks at her as if it’s “love at first sight,” as she makes her way to a seat.

It’s a scene that’s sure to induce eyerolls because it’s so mawkish, as Chris literally stops in front of the class to stare at her. He’s so entranced that the teacher asks Chris if he is staying or leaving. Sam notices that Chris is staring at her, and she smiles in the way that women do when they know that someone is immediately infatuated with them.

The next time Chris and Sam see each other, he literally bumps into her again. This time, it’s in a hallway, where Sam is putting up flyers for a fledgling student group she’s started called Safety Patrol. It’s a volunteer rideshare service for the university’s students to call if they need a safe ride somewhere. Chris gives Sam a mild critique of the Safety Patrol flyers that she’s put up on a bulletin board, by telling her that the flyers should be less intimidating and more welcoming.

It’s his way of flirting with Sam, who already can tell that Chris is very attracted to her. Chris ends up being the first volunteer to join the Safety Patrol. It also motivates Chris to get his driver’s license. And through their Safety Patrol activities, Sam and Chris get closer to each other and fall in love.

When Chris and Sam first met, she was casually dating someone named Brad, who is never seen or heard in the movie. Sam and Brad didn’t have a serious-enough relationship where they were committed to each other. Brad is mentioned a few times in the movie, and then he’s never mentioned again.

Sam also opens up to Chris about why the Safety Patrol program is important to her. Two years before, Sam’s mother was in a serious car accident that left her in a coma. Sam prayed that if her mother got out of the coma and recovered, Sam would do everything possible to help other people. Her mother came out of the coma and recovered, and Sam came up with the Safety Patrol idea as a way to keep her promise to God.

Chris and Sam’s relationship provides most of the movie’s comic relief, but Chris is written as a character who tries too hard to be funny, so his personality can become grating after a while. There’s a scene where Chris and Sam tell each other what kind of music they have on their iPods, and they alternate between teasing and praising each other about some of their musical choices. It’s meant to be cute and humorous, but it just comes across as very contrived and awkward.

There’s also an extensive Safety Patrol scene where Sam and Chris pick up three different passengers at different times on the same night. All three passengers are eventually crammed into the back of the car: a drunk sorority girl (played by Georgia Bradner), who inevitably vomits; a stoner surfer dude (played by Neil Webb); and an uptight nerd (played by Doralynn Mui), who refuses to let anyone touch the suitcase she has. This is where the movie tries to be a screwball comedy, but it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story.

Chris’ often-annoying narration constantly interjects in scenes and disrupts the flow of the movie. It’s the equivalent of someone sitting near you and making constant, unsolicited comments while you’re trying to watch a movie. And because Chris is written as a goofball, a lot of his corny humor doesn’t work well for the more serious scenes that he narrates. It’s not the actor’s fault. It’s the fault of how this substandard screenplay was written.

In addition to their health problems that reach a crisis level, Chris and Jorge have something else in common: They both have tense relationships with their demanding fathers. Chris’ father Eric (played by Tahmoh Penikett) is the type of parent who, instead of comforting Chris when Chris found out that he didn’t get accepted into his first-choice university, tells Chris: “Maybe you should’ve worked harder at it.” Jorge’s father Jose (played by Steve Bacic) expects Jorge to go on strenuous business trips that aren’t necessarily good for Jorge’s health.

Jose also doesn’t really approve of Leslie because she isn’t Hispanic. And when Leslie and Jorge get married, Jorge’s parents aren’t at the wedding. It’s not stated if Jorge’s parents refused an invitation or simply weren’t invited, but it’s clear that his parents didn’t approve of the marriage. Jorge’s mother, who is barely seen in the movie, appears briefly in a hospital scene when Jorge had his lung surgery while he was a Stanford student.

Chris is the youngest of three sons. He and his older brother Colin (the middle child) both attend Loyola University, which was not Chris’ first choice. Eldest son John (played by Anthony Konechny) is the “golden child” who attends an unnamed university that’s considered more prestigious, and this university was Chris’ first choice.

Chris had high hopes of going to the same university as John, who is clearly the favorite child of their father. Chris’ mother Grace (played by Kari Matchett) is the type of parent who is compassionate and tries not to treat one child as being “better” than the other. Not surprisingly, Chris is closer to his mother than he is to his father. Despite this family tension, Chris’ family is still tight-knit and supportive of each other.

The acting in “2 Hearts” is mediocre at best, although Canto does try very hard to show range as someone who is stricken with a very serious illness. However, the way that many lines are written in this movie just reek of something that could have been in a TV soap opera. There’s a scene where Jorge says that Leslie reminds him of a peanut, so he calls her “my peanut” as a term of endearment. Try not to retch.

To its credit, the movie makes great use of showing romantic locations. There are many scenes that take place on gorgeous beaches (such as in Hawaii) or luxurious resort getaways, thanks to all the traveling that Jorge and Leslie and do and Jorge’s ability to stay at top-tier hotels. But these are superficial visuals that can’t quite make up for all the ways that “2 Hearts” is lacking in doing justice to this inspiring story.

The most problematic part of the “2 Hearts” screenplay is that unnecessary “twist.” It cheapens the movie’s message, and it’s borderline insulting to the real life-or-death situations that were experienced by the people on whom this story is based. And ultimately, it sinks what could have been a much better movie if it had a quality screenplay and a more talented cast.

Freestyle Digital Media released “2 Hearts” in U.S. cinemas on October 16, 2020.