OK, so Go for Sisters is definitely not John Sayles’s best. Whoever wrote that this was the filmmaker’s ‘return to form’ is decidedly off the mark. Masterworks like Matewan and Lone Star are not easy to top, as they were likely not easy to make given their sprawling, multi-faceted structures. Sunshine State came close. As, to some degree, did Silver City. But there’s not much of a case for him losing his way. He has quietly, unassumedly made the films he has wanted to make without much concern for whatever I or any other critic might regard as his high water marks. Go for Sisters, like Limbo or Passion Fish is a quiet, thoughtful film about co-dependence under trying circumstances. It may not resonate as well as either of its small ensemble counterparts, but it is not an unenjoyable watch.
This is mostly due to the natural charisma of the two leads. The lovely, hard-bitten Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) exudes the seething regret of a recovering addict without once needing to break down in tears or have some kind of screaming catharsis. Given the potentially thankless role of a parole officer, LisaGay Hamilton nevertheless brings a girlish innocence and subtle tenderness to the otherwise remote Bernice. Despite the perhaps overtly novel disparity of their estranged roles, the performances are iron clad. Having the two thrown together as paroler and parolee by the fact that Bernice’s son has fallen in with some of Fontayne’s old drug associations seems a workable enough set-up for a reconciliation. And the scenes wherein the search for Bernice’s son is given some respite, there is a serene, elemental beauty to their shared reflections.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, there is no one save a half-blind ex-cop turned bounty hunter named Freddy “The Terminator” Suarez (Edward James Olmos) that resonates as well as the leads. Throw-away, cookie cutter bad guys all, with little to offer beyond the usual incredulous chest-thumping and shifty eyes. The film unspools almost like a boilerplate thriller that’s had too many of its basic ingredients shifted around to function as anything more than a distraction from the soul searching at it’s core. But Olmos is decidedly charming, if a bit on the cute side.* His Freddy Suarez is a classic end-of-the-liner that somehow just keeps on. When he’s hired by Bernice to help find her son, he takes down the ‘for sale’ sign on his front lawn. When a lead mentions that her husband is a plumber, he humbly asks if he needs an assistant. It’s to Sayles’s and Olmos’s credit that these moments manage to frame Freddy as a survivor and not a loser. He’s falling apart, but he’s stronger than he lets on — and Olmos has one of those faces (like Tommy Lee Jones) that seems to contain its own stories unto itself. His presence is key, even if it is just as a quaint sort of buffer zone.
Their journey becomes somewhat difficult to follow, and the lack of insight provided for both Bernice’s son and the Chinese smugglers who are holding him for ransom puts too much of the burden on the main protagonists’ shoulders. While this may be by design, it renders what could be another subtle, novelistically rich Sayles-at-his-best character study and potboiler much lighter than it should be. The story around Bernice’s son is too sketchy and harrowing to be treated like mere background, as it inevitably is. It’s like Fontayne and Bernice are two compelling women playing Nancy Drew by way of rekindling their friendship. The quiet scene when Bernice comes to see her new/old friend in the finale exemplifies the most satisfying element in Go for Sisters — simple friendship. Two people coming together out of the cold for each other’s warmth. Perfect films have been made with less. It’s a shame the path to this reunion couldn’t have been a less ineffectually genrefied one.
* There seems to be a tricky balance in certain Sayles movies between endearing and cloying moments of comic relief. And the endearing ones are so uniquely uncynical as to make you wanna give a pass to the cloying ones. It’s no different here, except that the cloying turns seem to outnumber the endearing ones.