The Austin Chronicle

Duty Free

Not rated, 73 min. Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 7, 2021

What to make of this barely-feature-length documentary that tackles such heady issues as the importance of family, ageism in the workplace, financial insecurity in the age of the gig economy and last, but certainly not least, a son’s love for his mother? Regis’ film is if nothing if not a captivating and perspicacious just-in-time-for-Mother’s Day billet-doux to his septuagenarian mum, Rebecca Danigelis, who 40 years earlier moved from her Liverpudlian home to Boston (for reasons best left for the viewer). As Duty Free opens, she has unexpectedly lost her Head-of-Housekeeping position at a posh, white-glove hotel. It’s a position she’s held for four-odd decades and is rightfully proud of, pointing out that the beating heart of the hotel industry lies in the quality of its immaculate, virginal untaintedness. (The point is driven home early on in shot of the ever fastidious Rebecca literally running a white-gloved finger across a mantle.)

As director/son Regis chronicles his mother’s story over a three-year period, we get to know her in singular detail, and what emerges is the exact opposite of what audiences may assume. Far from being a weepy tale of a stiff upper lip gone all aquiver, Duty Free is an inspiring and intimate portrait of resilience in the face of adversity. As setbacks, closeted familial skeletons, and barely-mentioned health issues crop up throughout, Rebecca – still glamorous and undimmed at 77 – proves herself to be as much a daring and spirited adventurer as she was in her previous position as a forthright and uncompromising matron. Still, money worries and eviction notices are hardly held at bay.

Until, that is, her son urges her to write up a sort of bucket list of things she never had the chance to do because of the intricate balancing act of her career and family matters. As she enumerates and undertakes the pleasures that evaded her (with son in tow, natch), an altogether different woman emerges. Amongst the amusingly offbeat experiences this newly minted adventuress decides upon are fewer that seem obvious to the point of cliche (skydiving!) and far more that reveal a curious adventuress reclaiming life with sublime abandon. Among the chosen activities are “Milk a cow,” “Take a hip-hop dance class,” visit her sister’s grave in England, and reconnect with – no spoiler here – a key family member heretofore unmentioned. Duty Free is for the most part free of gooey sentiment and clingy regrets. Regis (who eventually funded the on-and-off-again production of the film via Kickstarter) captures a remarkable portrait of a woman on the verge of … anything other than a nervous breakdown, mater triumphantes.

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