What’s your idea of comfort food? Where do you go to feel at ease? Who do you love more than anyone else, the person who has always been your heart and soul?
For women, the term sisterhood conjures vibes of solidarity and empathy, of being a united front against the cruelties of patriarchy. This sort of covenant isn’t, of course, unique to women, branching out and intersecting with other identities that form, at best, a nest of safety for victims of oppression.
Gal Cinema, a term that I coined back in July (and then completely abandoned, sorry to this blog, I would write every day if I didn’t need to make a living), is meant to frame films that fit this idea of solidarity — albeit through a specific lens. And what better way to start talking about female relationships and solidarity than with an actual story of sisterhood?
Practical Magic is a 1998 film directed by Griffin Dunne, adapted from Alice Hoffman’s novel of the same name. The story follows the lives of two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens (Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock), who escape their small town lives in different ways — one through adventure and one through marriage — until their bonds bring them back together.
The twist? They’re witches; two in a long line of “Owens women” who are blessed with the gift of magic and cursed with the death of any man who ever loves them. They live in an island community that ostracizes them, their home being a beautiful old Victorian house by the sea, watched over by their two aunts (Stockyard Channing and Dianne Wiest) after the Owens curse leaves them as orphans.
The plot itself isn’t important, this is a vibes movie: from the house full of bundled herbs and black cats to the sleepy seaside town (meant to be in the Massachusetts but actually filmed on San Juan Island and Whidbey Island in Washington state) to the costuming by Judianna Makovsky (A Little Princess, Pleasantville). The Owens women all have cascading tresses of hair, either chestnut brown or carnelian red, worn in wide plaits over their shoulders or, in the aunts’ case, pinned into a messy Gibson Girl updo under a wide hat. The film is both deeply set in its late-90s time (check Kidman’s velvet minidresses or Bullock’s long skirts with Keds) while also predicting the Anthropologie boho-chic of the next decade: distressed wooden cabinets and copper pots, pressed flowers, apothecary bottles.
What I adore most about Practical Magic is the closeness of the Owens family, which comes to include Sally’s two young daughters (one with brown hair and one with red, played by a baby Evan Rachel Wood). For a supernatural story, Dunne understood that the magic didn’t need to be convincing (it’s mostly practical (pun intended) effects, with one truly badly aged CGI moment), but the sisterhood did. Sally and Gillian are different, but instead of that being a hindrance to their relationship it’s a sealant, complimenting each other perfectly, like ingredients in a spell. It’s a story of deep relationships built on understanding and forgiveness, and the belief that that sort of love will endure in spite of distance or argument.
It’s also, finally, a fun movie. Bullock and Kidman are at the height of their powers, respectively charming and sultry. The aunts are the batty, supportive, uncensorious aunts you’ve always wished to visit in the summer. There’s midnight margaritas and an exceptional soundtrack. It all ends with the community of women in the village coming together to help the Owens sisters cover up accidental manslaughter and accepting them as the witches they are — and what’s a better example of solidarity than that?
Practical Magic was a flop and panned upon release, but has maintained a sort of cult following as a film whose aesthetic seems tailor-made for the Tumblr posts of millennials like me. I first saw it with friends at University, and it’s such a quick watch — just over an hour and a half — that it became a perfect go-to movie night pick; not something that is necessarily challenging or difficult to watch, but not something empty, either. Practical Magic is a comfort movie meant for sleepovers or Sunday mornings, as easy to sink into as a warm bath or the arms of your sister, whoever she may be.