A true maverick of the independent movie scene, John Sayles will probably never be considered a mainstream filmmaker, and frankly his fans wouldn't have it any other way. Years ago it used to be a big deal any time he's release another of his socially aware, deeply political character studies; movies like Lone Star, Matewan, and City of Hope. Now he's just another starving artist, struggling to put scrape together the funds to back a movie every few years or so, mostly through his work-for-hire gigs in the Hollywood that has mostly shunned him. Lately, his films haven't packed quite the same punch but he's found his passion and a new reserve of courage with Go for Sisters, the best Sayles film in years.
Courageous in that Sayles, who already knows the film is unlikely to get wide distribution anywhere, dares to focus this small-scale piece on a pair of African-American women, an unfortunate and rather insulting rarity nowadays. Continuing his cinematic trek through rarely-explored American subcultures, Sayles guides us along the treacherous U.S./Mexico border, seen through the eyes of characters that live their lives on the brink.
The sorely underrated LisaGay Hamilton (you may recall her from The Practice) is straight-laced parole officer Bernice Stokes, a tough woman who has lived her life always trying to do the right thing. Her son, however, has gone a different tract and hooked up with a bad crowd, disappearing without a trace somewhere in Mexico's vast underbelly. When some of his friends start getting murdered, Bernice enlists parolee and old friend Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) for help. An ex-junkie trying to walk the straight and narrow, Yolanda is initially reluctant of being dragged back down into a world she's barely escaped, but does so out of lingering loyalty. They had been close for years, people always said they could "go for sisters"; however Sayles dangles the mystery of their estrangement.
The first 30 minutes feel exactly as a John Sayles movie should, exploring social and economic disparity, the injustice of the justice system, and race issues with his usual insight and incredible ear for naturalistic dialogue. But this is a rough 'n nasty crime movie, although Sayles keeps that mostly hidden until the introduction of half-blind former detective Freddie Suarez, played by a rugged Edward James Olmos. Suarez is an old dog with old tricks and a nose for rooting out trouble, and soon he's packing heat and getting the girls up to their necks in Chinese mafia and Mexican crime lords. All of this while under the guise of a multi-cultural rock band on tour. It sounds silly and perhaps a little more action-intensive than your usual Sayles movie but somehow it works.
For all the shoot-outs and car chases, Sayles never forgets this is a story about people first. Yolanda and Bernice attempt to patch up their fractured friendship, ripped apart by jealousies old and new. Neither of their lives has turned out as they wanted, and through that shared disappointment they find a new common ground in the desire for something better. They're two women encroaching on one another's territory; so to speak, as Bernice delves into crime and Yolanda attempts to do what's right for the first time. Hamilton and Ross have an easy chemistry, their friendship lived-in and comfortable. Sayles rarely loses sight of that core relationship, only occasionally falling into clichés of the genre barely above the level of a TV cop drama. Some of that sloppiness is a by-product of the cheapie production, which must have been stretched to the limit filming on both sides of the border. Sayles is still a draw for big name talent, though, and while his terrific leads lack star power he gets a lot of help from co-stars Isaiah Washington, Harold Perrineau, and Hector Elizondo. Olmos hasn't been asked to play a character this tough, this funny, this beleaguered, this....everything, in a very long time. In a fairer world, Olmos, Hamilton, and Ross would be getting a lot more attention during this awards season, but you'd need more than 10 people to see the film for that. Hopefully those crying out for great
Sayles has often had trouble concocting a compelling story to surround his fully-developed characters, but that's not a problem here. Both a perceptive human drama and old school crime mystery, Go for Sisters is a film with a lot to say and deserving of your utmost attention. Don't let it pass you by.