GO FOR SISTERS B+
USA (123 mi) 2013 d: John Sayles Official site
USA (123 mi) 2013 d: John Sayles Official site
Oh, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins. Once upon a time that’s what independent used to mean. —John Sayles
When people speak of American independent filmmakers, today they may immediately think of David Gordon Green or Jeff Nichols, both of whom come from the North Carolina School of Arts and are major influences on the contemporary landscape, but one of the strongest voices is John Sayles, the director of MATEWAN (1987), LONE STAR (1996), and Limbo (1999), who has been making films without studio backing since 1979, initially securing financing for his films by writing some genre screenplays for commercial projects like PIRANHA (1978), THE LADY IN RED (1979), and ALLIGATOR (1980). A MacArthur Fellowship award winner in 1983, his methodical approach to filmmaking is largely built around his writing ability and his meticulous attention to detail. In Sayles films, one always recognizes his ear for dialogue, complex characters caught up in moral uncertainty, a significant presence from secondary characters, a racially diverse world, a relaxed humor, extraordinary musical soundtracks, where his highly individualistic approach remains uncompromising even as he targets a mainstream audience. While he has established a reputation as a novelist and a writer of literate and witty scripts, his own films steer clear of formula or convention and prove to be realistic, character-driven stories that are dramatically compelling while also remaining unpredictable. Without a dependence on studio backing, Sayles leaves his own mark on his films by maintaining control over production, casting, and the final cut. Making his 18th low budget film, Sayles is not only the writer and director, but also the editor and co-writer of the song heard playing over the end credits. Viewers weaned on Hollywood productions will find his quirky style amusing and filled with character idiosyncrasies while also feeling novelesque, where what’s unique to his films is the feeling afterwards that you have experienced something new and different, as if you have been immersed in another world.
Nothing could be truer about this film, which begins in the mundane world of police bureaucracy, where the focus is on one individual parole officer, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who patiently listens to a desperate woman’s erratic plea for mercy, explaining she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but only there in the first place to respond to a plea for help, claiming she committed no crime. Bernice, playing by the book, dispassionately refers her to a court hearing for a parole violation, much to the woman’s dismay. While she believes she is protecting the public’s interest, she’s really listlessly going through the motions while her attention is elsewhere, receiving a disturbing series of cellphone calls about her missing son Rodney. Since returning from a tour of duty overseas with the Marine Corps, she’s had little contact with him, causing her endless grief when she doesn’t know where he is. Calling her next case, it turns out to be one of the girls she used to hang out with in high school, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), now out on parole after serving some serious prison time, but she’s been called in for fraternizing with an ex-convict, where Bernice is filling in for her absent parole officer. What brief time they spend together is offset by Bernice’s focus elsewhere, but she promises not to refer her case for a hearing. When one of Rodney’s best friends turns up dead, with the police looking for him as a possible suspect, Bernice calls Fontayne for help in establishing contacts with her son’s known associates, assuming the worst, that he’s gotten himself involved in criminal activity. This search through the seamy underworld of Los Angeles couldn’t be more intriguing, showing a side we rarely see, as no one is portrayed through stereotypes, but through character development even in the minor roles. One of the contacts is Chula, Vanessa Martinez, who was the daughter who had such an amazing impact in the final scenes of Limbo, looking completely different here, playing one of Fontayne’s prison friends who’s trying to get her life back together. In a brief personal moment, we realize they were lovers in prison, where Chula is moving on, but Fontayne is still living with those feelings, beautifully expressing how conflicted she is through subtle nuances.
Chula leads them to Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), a retired police detective who may have left the force involuntarily under mysterious circumstances, where in every character there’s a darker underside that remains hidden, that eventually comes out, but only after plenty of investigative legwork where they’re constantly thrust into each other’s lives. The earnest devotion of Bernice and the world weary street smarts of Freddy and Fontayne make this one delicious movie experience, where a character study becomes a rambling road movie that veers out of control, especially when their leads take them across the border to Tijuana, seen as such a twisted and depraved town that Freddy nails it with pinpoint accuracy: “This isn't Mexico. This is like a theme park for bad behavior,” which mirrors a similar remark from Limbo: “Think of Alaska as one big theme park.” Somewhat reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s subterranean Mexican journey in Erick Zonca’s JULIA (2008), the offbeat quality of the film is what provides the dramatic richness, taking us into a subculture of drugs, guns, kidnappings, and human trafficking, where money is made out of human misery and desperation. The more we learn about this unsavory place, with its layers of gang protection and corrupt federales, the deeper trouble Rodney is in. While there is a build up of tense moments, there is also off-handed humor and personal revelations about their lives, where Sayles simply knows how to keep things interesting, not by creating action sequences, which would be the norm, but by weaving his characters in and out of tight spots, where the story is continually advanced through personal dialogue and through an exploration of their interrelations with a network of nefarious underworld figures, eventually leading to a bizarre outcome. But at the same time, Sayles leaves room for smaller moments, the kind that never make it into bigger pictures, where he savors a brief encounter with Freddy and a runaway young mother hauling along her infant child, dreaming of life on the other side where she knows she’ll reconnect with her out of touch boyfriend. Knowing the odds are against her, telling her “It’s a big country, bigger than Mexico,” yet he still stops to offer encouragement, buys her breakfast and hands her a few bucks, telling her he’ll try to help find him if she makes it across. It’s a big hearted moment in an otherwise heartless world. Perhaps even more memorable is Sayles allowing Olmos to wail away on a Rickenbacker electric guitar, a signature moment that reminds us that life isn’t always what it seems, that there’s always more waiting to be discovered under the surface.