When thrust under the crushing wheels of fate, sometimes you have to stake out a position on both sides of the law to save yourself and those you love. At least that’s how things are in writer-director John Sayles’s latest feature film Go for Sisters, a meandering tale of borderlands and underworlds.
Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a no-nonsense parole officer in Los Angeles. Her seemingly uptight devotion to the system begins to show cracks when she goes easy on ex-con Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), her best friend from back in the day, after an infraction. Later, she learns that her missing son Rod got involved with some hardened criminals and is now a suspect in a grisly murder case. Her remaining loyalty to official justice crumbles away as she sets off on a desperate search to save Rod. She enters a shadowy world where violent criminals run the show; her old friend Fontayne, who knows the ropes, offers her assistance. As the duo drive to the Mexican border in search of a lead, they also slowly circle back to their past together, when they were so close they could “go for sisters.”
Giving a neo-noir spin to the drama, disgraced former detective Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos, gruff and brine-aged to salty perfection) comes out of forced retirement to take on the case of Bernice’s son. Paunchy, nap-prone, and nearly blind, Suarez is an aging grouch with a smoker’s rasp. His old nickname from his days on the force, The Terminator, now seems like a cruel taunt, but there’s no denying the man’s still got presence. As the three travel over the border, they come across a diverse parade of unsavory sorts and outsiders—a rare instance of a richly multiethnic American film with almost no white characters.
Go for Sisters lopes along at a pace that at times verges on the pleasingly absurd: Bernice and Fontayne share a comical interlude with a cheerful, obtuse travel agent trying to sell them a trip to Baja; Suarez waxes on about his old rock ’n’ roll band as he jams on an electric guitar; a car chase grinds to a halt when the trio stop at a gas station to refuel. The counterpoint between the pressing urgency of their mission and the many languorous detours has an appealing irony. But there’s also a certain lack of care with the narrative; formula intrudes periodically to move the story along.
But that may be the point. Sayles’s use of a dubious storyline to foreground the sensitive, sympathetic portrayals of outsiders seeking connection is familiar territory for the director. He set an alien loose in the streets of New York, showing his encounters with all sorts of eccentrics in the comedic sci-fi Brother From Another Planet (84) and charted an unlikely friendship that emerges amid self-imposed exile and racial class difference in Passion Fish (92).
As with the soap-opera-star-turned-paralytic-drunk setup in Passion Fish, the mother-on-a-rescue mission in Go for Sisters plays second fiddle to the fine-tuned characters and affecting dialogue. The heart of the movie lies in the back and forth between Bernice and Fontayne as they repair their friendship and fill each other in on the joys and travails of the years since they parted ways. Ross is striking in her blue biker jacket and bold bouffant, and has an earthy, matter-of-fact pragmatism as Fontayne, a damaged yet resilient junkie on the mend. Her cool plays well against Hamilton’s fiery Bernice, a taut bundle of tension whose veneer of self-control belies an edgy woman struggling to hold it together. As they ease back into their natural camaraderie, both of them loosen up and renew their weary spirits.
Lady Justice wears a blindfold, but her earthly emissaries have been known to sneak a peak now and then. Go for Sisters portrays these deviations from the straight and narrow and from the unfeeling ideal of justice with a delicate touch.