Life and Crimes, from John Sayles
Regardless of its pros and cons, Go for Sisters — the latest from John Sayles, marking his 18th film since his debut in 1979 — is, in its way, a small miracle: A film about people, and about people with real lives, that could stand in its own way as half of a double bill with Jackie Brown, a similar film about how both goals and risks become much more immediate in the later stages of life. Almost no one makes films like this anymore — whether at studios, or, for that matter, independently — but Sayles is still out there, not only making actual films about actual human beings, but doing so superbly. It is not, as some might think, that the American cinema has passed Sayles over; rather, it has rushed by him, and in doing so made a huge mistake. If Baz Lurmann and Michael Bay can get money for movies, then the fact that directors like Soderbergh, Hartley and Sayles have to scrape, bow and Kickstart to get a movie made — or quit moviemaking instead, in Soderbergh’s case — is a sure and certain black mark against just how money-mad the movie industry has become. (Yes, movies need to make money. Unfortunately, large Hollywood recently seems to think that a movie should not be made unless it can make all the money.)
And watching Go for Sisters, it’s precisely the kind of film the American audience needs — an escape from escapism, a film about humans, not superhumans, one with real stakes for actual people, not ticking-clock fantasies. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer in L.A., busy keeping law and order in a swamp of too many clients and, as she notes, “listening to people sugar-coat bullshit all day.” One day, Bernice meets a new client as part of the retirement of another caseworker, a parolee named Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) … and soon realizes that, once upon a time, they knew each other back in school, long before life and time sent them in different ways. Bernice does Fontayne a favor — for old time’s sake, or because she herself is having a bad day, or just for the hell of it — and tells Bernice that if she ever needs a favor, she can ask, anytime.
And Bernice does need a favor; her grown son has disappeared, back from war and last seen with some rough people doing rough business. After agreeing to help, Fontayne and Bernice soon determine they have to head to Mexico — and for that level of risk, they hire ex-LAPD legend Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos) who, back in the day was a ass-kicker and name-taker called ‘The Terminator,’ and is now disgraced, pensionless and slowly going blind — but still deadly sharp, clever and tough. And so our unlikely trio — none of whom are as simple or simplistic as their pasts and presents suggest — head south of the border to try and pry some kind of victory from between the jaws of cruel and sharp-toothed fate.
Superbly shot by Kat Westergaard and edited by Sayles himself, Go for Sisters connects its dramtic writing with evocative filmmaking, and Sayles’ script even pauses for jokes-that-aren’t, like when Bernice explains how as a boy her son loved Roadblock, “G.I. Joe’s black buddy.” And yes, the very vast differences in the lives the two lead make up much of the film, but their similarities matter, too, and Olmos’ world-weary ex-cop is neither a cliché or a caricature.
When released, it was said that Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was a rarity — a film where the mixed-race leads embarked on a romantic relationship when their combined ages would easily be in the triple-digits. Go For Sisters, similarly, is about the kinds of characters, played by the kind of actors, that studio-pictures resign to either invisibility or cliché supporting parts. No one makes any speeches about it, but time, race and class all figure here even when unspoken — just as they do in life — and thus inform every scene of the film. The actors are excellent — Olmos gets a great monologue clearly drawn from life, while Ross and Hamilton’s changing relationship is portrayed subtly, wisely and well. With his long career and prophet-without-profit status, you might think I’m exhorting you to go see Go for Sisters with the underlying idea you owe it to Sayles; really, though, in a film landscape where we’re not just asked but actually trained to confuse activity with drama and velocity with direction, you should go see a movie with the quietly assured art and humanity of Go for Sisters not because you owe it to Mr. Sayles but rather, really, because you owe it to yourself.