GO FOR SISTERS is what they said about friends ‘Bernice’ and ‘Fontayne’ back in high school—until Fontayne stole Bernice’s boyfriend. Twenty-plus years down the line finds Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) a hard-edged L.A. parole officer, working through her lineup of foulups, when recovering drug casualty Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) appears, hoping to avoid parole violation. Their mix of life experience and personal history entwines when situational ethics compel a cornered Bernice to ask street-smart Fontayne for help in finding her son, wanted for possible involvement in a killing. Discovering he’s kidnapped across the border, they use the skills of a disgraced former cop ‘Freddy Suarez’ (Edward James Olmos) to navigate the dangerous byways of Tijuana, Mexicali and the mercy-shy desert border region. A Chinese human trafficking ring factors in: things are poised to go from dire to bleak.
Yet another winner from writer-director-editor John Sayles, this up-close and intense pocket-vest indie from 2013 cost him less than a million bucks to shoot, in a lightning 19 days on 65 locations in Southern California and Mexico. Despite buzz from festival circuits, the picture was given an indifferent release and found next-to-no audience, with oddly sour reviews that often over-dinged it for some minor structural flaws. *
The characterizations, relationships and observational details are the scripts strong points, while the plot angle of the pursuit/chase works to less effect, and at 123 minutes it chugs some in the last quarter. Trimming would have helped and likely staved off most of the criticism leveled at it. Since all Sayles works feature high-quality performing, the acting is so convincing it readily dismisses complaints over padding and pace.
Diversity and compassion are salient features of this laid-back auteur’s prodigious output, with characters, settings and themes openly and humanistically playing to the racial, social, sexual and class distinctions & divides, congruence & compatibility of these roiling United States. Resolute in avoidance of formula or stereotype, his incisive writing and uncluttered direction allow even the briefest supporting bits to shine in plausible, captivating characters with their own desires, frets, and tales to tell.
Hamilton and Ross are pitch-perfect, the acting invisible. Olmos, 66, has his best role since American Me. Making striking impressions in minutes-long gift parts are Tessa Ferrer (the stellar first scene of the film, as a b.s.’ing parolee), Martha Higareda (the son’s frantic Mexicana girlfriend), Mahershala Ali (Bernice’s boyfriend, shamefacedly delivering breakup notice), and Jessica Pimental (a desperate immigrant Olmos takes pity on).
With more fine moments from Isaiah Washington, Harold Perrineau, Hector Elizondo, Vanessa Martinez and Richard Coca. Music scoring by Mason Daring, Sayle’s collaborator since 1979. All in, a dandy little nugget, blended with heartache, humor, horror and hope, the emotions frank, natural and unforced. The wounds hurt, the words count. You care about these people. The film doesn’t preach: it converts.
* Sayle’s 18th film. Olmos, who helped produce: “”I’ve never done a faster movie in respect to the location…If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re never gonna make your day…. The beauty of it is total artistic control, to the blink, to the breath.” John Sayles, long may you wave.