action, Amigo, auteur theory, Best of 2013, cinema, crime thriller, Don Harvey, drama, Edward James Olmos, Elizabeth Sung, female friendships, feminism, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, friends, friendship, Go For Sisters, Hilary Barraford, independent films, indie dramas, Jesse Borrego, John Sayles, Kathryn Westergaard, LisaGay Hamilton, Mahershala Ali, McKinley Belcher III, Mexico, missing son, Movies, parole officer, Vanessa Martinez, writer-director, Yolonda Ross
True friendship is a rare beast, indeed. Not the friendships of convenience that the modern age makes so necessary, mind you, but the honest to god, flesh and blood, right in front of your face kind of friendships that last for lifetimes. These are the kinds of friendships for which the cliché “take a bullet” is actually a truth…the kind that blur the line between kin and acquaintance. If we’re lucky, we’ll all have one of those friendships at some point in our lives, although it’s not a given: friendships like this need to be worked at, maintained and that kind of dedication just isn’t for everyone. It’s easy to say that you’ll always be there for someone but much harder to actually deliver on said promise.
In many ways, legendary writer/director John Sayles’ most recent film, Go For Sisters (2013), is a tribute to true friendships of the type described above. It’s also a whip-smart, fast-paced, lean and mean crime thriller but that’s just how Sayles has always done things: from as far back as The Brother From Another Planet (1984), Sayles has mixed social critique and genre conventions to dizzying effect, resulting in some truly unforgettable films. Under the guise of historical dramas, thrillers, police procedurals and sci-fi films, Sayles has managed to comment on everything from race relations and immigration to U.S. colonialism, the sins of the father, corruption and greed. While his body of a work as a writer/director is impressive enough on its own, Sayles has also been something of a writing “gun for hire” in Hollywood, as it were, churning out the scripts for everything from Roger Corman’s original Piranha (1978) to Alligator (1980) and Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). In every sense of the term, John Sayles is a living legend and any new Sayles film is an event worth celebrating: Go For Sisters reminds us that the filmmaker is as relevant today as he was way back in 1979.
The “true friends” in Go For Sisters take the form of Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), life-long friends who’ve become separated by the inexorable march of time and change. While they used to be quite the wild pair, Bernice’s current job as a parole officer bespeaks of a rather significant life change. The two reconnect when Bernice ends up being Fontayne’s parole officer: Bernice may have gone the straight and narrow but Fontayne still struggles to escape the cycle of crime and drugs that’s held her down for so many years. At first glance, it seems like these former friends won’t have a lot of common ground to stand on but life, as always, is never that simple.
It turns out that Bernice is having her own problems, namely the disappearance of her wayward military vet son, Rodney (McKinley Belcher III). Since Rodney is a bit of a wild child, himself, Bernice isn’t sure whether her inability to contact him is due to his lifestyle or a genuine problem. When she sees Fontayne again, however, Bernice sees her ticket into the “underworld” via her wayward friend’s illicit connections. While Fontayne is less than thrilled with the prospect of violating her parole nine ways to Sunday, Bernice assures her that it can’t be a violation if her parole officer is sanctioning it. Before long, the pair get a lead and head for Mexico, putting Fontayne into a potentially boiling pot of scalding trouble: if hanging out with known felons is a parole no-no, skipping the country must rank as some sort of hell-no.
Once in Mexico, Bernice and Fontayne team-up with disgraced former police officer-turned bounty hunter Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos) and continue their hunt for Rodney, coming ever closer to the truth behind his disappearance. The truth, of course, ends up being even crazier than they imagined and involves illegal Chinese immigrants, a vicious Mexican drug lord and the mysterious, sinister Mother Han (Elizabeth Sung), who just may be pulling the strings behind it all. As Bernice and Fontayne get deeper and deeper into the muck, they rekindle their formerly extinguished friendship and find out the clearest, most important truth of all: when you have real friends, you can overcome any obstacle, fight any foe and win any battle. Bernice and Fontayne may be outgunned, outmanned and out-maneuvered but as long as they have each other, the bad guys just don’t stand a chance.
In an era when women seem to increasingly get the shit end of the stick in both the “real world” and pop culture, it’s not only refreshing but downright necessary to have films like Go For Sisters. Not only are Bernice and Fontayne the central figures of Sayles’ film but they’re stronger than any male character in the film. Even the heroic, steadfast Freddy Suarez is nothing compared to the rock-solid female leads: if anything, Go For Sisters reminds of a less flamboyant, cliche-ridden version of one of Pam Grier’s classic blaxploitation roles. There’s no point in the film where either woman feels like a victim, someone in need of male protection or male guidance: one of the most telling points in the film is the one where Fontayne explains her homosexuality with the dismissive, “boys turn into men…you know how that goes.” If we don’t already, we get a pretty good example via the pairs various interactions throughout the film, with the exception of Edward James Olmos’ pseudo-white knight Suarez.
Far from being a clinical, cold treatise on racial and gender politics, however, Go For Sisters wraps everything in the guise of a cracking-good crime/mystery/thriller. Like his similar Lone Star (1996), Sayles wraps everything around a pretty good mystery: it’s no Chinatown (1974) but there are plenty of satisfying twists and turns, along with some truly kickass action scenes. The bit where Fontayne turns an empty liquor bottle into a “gun” is a classic (“I always carry a Colt .45 with me”) and Bernice projects nothing but fire and grit.
While the filmmaking is typically great (in particular, cinematographer Kathryn Westergaard puts some truly stunning visuals up on the screen, particularly once the action moves south of the border), the acting is a true thing of beauty. LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross are absolutely perfect as the former/current best-friends: their relationship never feels anything less than completely genuine, including their halting “getting to know you again” time. Anyone who’s ever fallen out with and then reconnected with a dear friend should certainly recognize more than a few beats here. As previously mentioned, Bernice and Fontayne are completely awesome, ass-kicking protagonists, the kind that any film would be proud to host and much credit must be due the flawless performance.
Just as good, for different reasons, is Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of the kindly bounty hunter: Olmos is, without a doubt, one of our most storied actors and there’s something truly cool about seeing him play such an unflappable, badass individual. Like something out of an old spaghetti Western, Olmo’s Freddy Suarez is a polite, well-spoken, barely contained tornado: “You musta been some hot shit behind that badge, Freddy,” Fontayne praises him, at one point. Freddy smiles and replies, “They called me The Terminator” and there’s absolutely no way we don’t believe him.
Ultimately, Go For Sisters is the kind of unflashy, old-fashioned, character-driven film that will probably seem like a museum fossil in this day and age. Tightly written, expertly crafted, beautifully shot, wildly entertaining…pretty much just what you should expect from a John Sayles film. If you’ve always been a fan, Go For Sisters is going to be another jewel in a long, illustrious career. If you’re new to the simple majesty of this master storyteller, strap yourself in and prepare yourself for one hell of an experience. It’s tempting to say that the master’s back but here’s the thing: he never went anywhere in the first place.