Go for Sisters
2013, NR, 123 min. Directed by John Sayles. Starring LisaGay Hamilton, Edward James Olmos, Yolonda Ross.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 6, 2013
When they were kids, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) were such good friends and so simpatico that people said they could “go for sisters.” But life somehow intervened, and the girls went their separate ways – each one, ironically, functioning on an opposite side of the law. Twenty years after their school days, they meet again by chance when former heroin addict and ex-convict Fontayne shows up on the new client list of parole officer Bernice. An establishing scene reveals Bernice to be a strict but fair monitor of other people’s actions when she refuses to accept a client’s admitted misdeeds on the basis of having done them out of friendship. “I listen to people sugarcoat their bullshit all day long,” she later says. Yet when Bernice’s troubled son, a veteran, suddenly vanishes into the netherworld, her old friend Fontayne is who she turns to for help in finding her son.
Go for Sisters has all the hallmarks of a John Sayles film: the ensemble cast, the kernel of a mystery to solve, the moral dilemmas and social consciousness, the meat-and-potatoes camerawork, and the fascination with cross-border settings and lives lived in the margins. (One thing Go for Sisters curiously does not have is the credited presence of Sayles’ longtime producer and partner Maggie Renzi.) What Go for Sisters lacks in dramatic tension and straight-ahead storytelling it makes up for with a heightened sense of realism and compelling performances. LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross are focused and deliver strong, focused performances as the two black women at the heart of the story. By the time the women add the disgraced former detective Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos) to their search party, the ensemble really begins to cook. Suárez’s defense of a friend previously led to his discharge from the force without pension, and now, slowly going blind, Suárez takes this job so he can pay his property taxes and keep his home. Olmos’ performance in this film is a constant revelation.
Still, Go for Sisters goes down so many blind alleyways in its quest to find Bernice’s son that the film sometimes feels more like an encyclopedia of social woes than a crime drama. Sequences like the visit to Fontayne’s prison girlfriend (who is now out of jail and has a child and a husband who knows nothing about her lesbian dalliance) and the Tijuana scene in which the women are shown the tunnel that crosses over to the U.S. come to mind. One-scene appearances by the likes of Isaiah Washington and Hector Elizondo up this low-budget film’s polish but can also feel like red herrings. Nevertheless, Go for Sisters is writer/director Sayles’ best film in a number of years, and since this icon of the American independent cinema can always be counted on to deliver maverick work, his latest alternative to the mainstream is welcome indeed.
John Sayles will be in attendance at the 7pm screening on Saturday. On Sunday, he will present his 1987 film Matewan at an Austin Film Society screening. See Unknown Territory, December 6, for Robert Faires' interview with Sayles.