When reviewing the 2014 film Perfect Sisters at the time of its release, The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Frank Scheck hit the nail on the head when he said that the film had “the sort of true-crime melodrama that has fueled countless Lifetime television movies.” Well, it seem Scheck’s write-up is a crystal ball of sorts, as the movie is getting a big Lifetime premiere on Saturday, August 13, with the network’s famous “based on a true story” tag attached. But, is the movie Perfect Sisters based on a true story?
Short answer: Yes. While the story about the Canadian sisters’ successful plot to murder their alcoholic mother in a bathtub is true, there are pieces of the story that have been changed that critics say make the girls look more sympathetic than the convicted killers they really are in real life.
Lifetime is teasing Perfect Sisters online with the following synopsis: “Tired of their mother's alcoholism and a string of her abusive boyfriends, two sisters plot to kill her.” The promos for the film depict the teens feeling fed up with their mother and pushed to their limits by society. However, there is something more sinister behind the real-life sisters’ motives, according to multiple news outlets — including those that covered the case as it was unfolding.
Perfect Sisters is based on the book The Class Project: How to Kill a Mother by veteran Toronto Star journalist Bob Mitchell — who covered the “Bathtub Girls'” ongoing trial, according to the Toronto Star’s review of the film. The Star explained that the girls were 15 and 16 at the time of the crime in 2003, so they could never be named when reporting on the murder of their mother Linda Andersen, who the girls drowned in the family bathtub after plying her with liquor and Tylenol 3. The film calls them Beth (Georgie Henley) and Sandra (Abigail Breslin).
Initially, The Star reports, the girls got away with murder and more than $100,000.00 in insurance money. But the sisters callously bragged about the murder at school, leading to their conviction. The Star’s review criticizes the movie for its portrayal of the murderers as victims themselves and says that the murder scene was “far less gruesome than courtroom testimony and trial reports suggested.”
Nova Scotia newspaper The Chronicle Herald quoted Mitchell in 2014, following the film’s short theatrical stint. The paper reported Mitchell as saying,
“If you didn’t know the whole story, the movie comes across as these poor girls, basically, who were pushed to the limit and this is how they figured out how to get out of it, but then in the end they get caught … I don’t think the movie dealt with how cold-blooded and calculating they were.”
Mitchell explained that more planning went into the murder than the film depicts, and he recalled that the sisters giggled in court when autopsy photos were displayed. One article, “Smart kids and an evil secret,” from Mitchell’s original reporting about the girls, lays out some of the detailed planning and bragging that went into the murder. (Tread carefully, as the article is graphic.)
According to Variety, the real life Sandra and Beth are controversial figures in Canada, as their 10-year sentences (the maximum for children their age who commit first-degree murder, according to The Chronicle Herald) are over in 2016. The sisters have even gone on to attend college on scholarship. According to a 2014 article in The Star, the older sister spent just three years in jail before being released to a halfway house in 2009 and has been studying engineering. The younger sister was released in 2010 and is a married mother who was reported to start law school in 2014.
So, yes, the basics of the case are true. However, it’s important to consider the sensational quality of movies when watching films with that “based on a true story" tag. In the end, sometimes a Lifetime movie is just a Lifetime movie.
Image: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films/YouTube