Go for Sisters: The Return of John Sayles

Go for Sisters

Opens Fri., Jan. 10 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 123 minutes.

Since his 1979 debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven, the pioneering indie director John Sayles has never flagged in his sober commitment to exploring social issues. But he’s a realist; he knows audiences like stories. And after a handful of iffy box-office performers, Sayles cozies up to an out-and-out genre picture with Go for Sisters, which—perhaps not coincidentally—is also his best in over a decade.

For by-the-book Los Angeles parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), life is uncharacteristically out of her control: Her adult son, a combat vet, is missing after getting mixed up in some dodgy border trouble. The only person who can help is her former high-school friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), a recovering addict and ex-con. While the two investigate, they get into dicey situations in Tijuana and Mexicali, aided by disgraced ex-cop Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos), a low-talking freelancer whose instincts are as good as his eyesight is bad. That this plotline seems as contrived as the average TV cop show’s hardly detracts from the well-honed precision of Sayles’ dialogue or the beauty of the central performances. In other words, this is one of those examples of a storytelling hook—can the trio find Bernice’s son and avoid getting killed in the process?—carrying the weight of a serious study of milieu and character.

Sayles’ interests here include the haplessness of illegal immigrants and the strange role played by the Chinese in human trafficking across the border, as well as society’s tendency to mark a false division between sinners and innocents. Happily, all of that comes through without sacrificing our interest in this specific troupe of searchers. Ross, statuesque and street-smart, makes us believe in the weakness of her generally good-hearted character, and Olmos—even though he’s done this kind of guy before—is never less than satisfying to watch. Freddy used to be known as “El Terminator,” but his lethal powers must’ve been subtle. At this point in his disappointed life, he’s underplaying like a man who’s seen it all and is resigned to how bad things could get.

Best of all, the movie hands a big role to the well-traveled Hamilton (she had regular roles on The Practice and Men of a Certain Age), who almost never lets you catch her acting. In spots where Go for Sisters strains to connect its plot points with implausible behavior, Hamilton’s steady gaze and no-nonsense delivery practically dare you to raise an objection. I, for one, was sufficiently intimidated on that score, and stayed engrossed throughout.


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