The opening twenty minutes or so of “Go For Sisters,” which includes a riveting monologue from a character we never see again (but whose hardships are echoed throughout the film), are as good as anything on John Sayles' resume. That's saying a lot, as the man has given us a slew of dare-I-say perfect movies like 1987's “Matewan,” 1991's “City of Hope,” 1992's “Passion Fish,” 1999's “Limbo” and 2002's “Sunshine State.” So when “Go For Sister”'s second act begins to slide into predictability (and even one or two pockets of doldrums) there's just enough of a foundation to carry the movie across the finish line.
It's the characters that do it. LisaGay Hamilton is Bernice, a stonefaced parole officer who “listens to people sugarcoat bullshit all day.” A personnel change gives her new “clients” (as they are mandated to call them) and one of them is Fontayne (Yolanda Ross.) It only takes a moment to recognize that, yes, this woman now urinating in a cup is, indeed, her old teenage chum.
The memories come rushing back and Bernice just can't get herself to issue a citation for Fontayne's recent violations. As Fontayne puts it, in her world it's virtually impossible to walk down the street without associating with known felons. The crack in Bernice's facade doesn't just set the story mechanics in motion (Fontayne promises her to reciprocate the favor any time, no questions asked) but belies the humanist nature of Sayles' film. Every character, even the ones who at first seem to just have “bad guy” tattooed on their forehead, is given the courtesy of an acknowledged backstory.
We soon learn that Bernice's son, a distant Army vet with a deceased father, has gone missing. His last known associates were bad dudes mixed up in some shady business, so Bernice needs Fontayne to make some inquiries and help find out where he might be. And it's important they find him before the cops, who want to question him about the death of someone named “Fuzzy.” (Probably not his given name.)
Unfortunately, Sayles starts to lose a little focus by letting the missing person story take too much of center stage. In an age of wall-to-wall mysteries on prime time television (“NCIS: Sheboygan” is still a big hit, right?) this aspect of “Go For Sisters” is by far the least interesting. Mexican criminals? Didn't I just sit through “2 Guns?”
It's the little stuff on the side that resonates, and the conversations are the selling point. The dialogue is rarely heated, but frequently melancholy, as these two middle-aged African-American women who took wildly different paths through life reflect on the world around them. They were once close and bore a physical resemblance such that some said they could “go for sisters.” Now, despite being on opposite sides of “success,” they are equally lonely.
They eventually hook up with Edward James Olmos, a former detective, now half-blind, but still whip-smart. He leads their underworld through Tijuana and Mexicali, throwing out sagacious lines like they're going out of style. It's a terrific performance, but his story is far less interesting than Bernice and Fontayne's. He does get a typically Sayles-ian monologue about growing up and playing in rock n' roll bands, all while noodling on an electric guitar.
“Go For Sisters” is something of a frustration. It's the least interesting crime caper ever, and there are fascinating characters forced to go through the motions as if any of us could possibly care. Oh, if only they had taken “The Counselor”'s route and just dropped all that stuff out. Considering that Sayles has had a great deal of success as a novelist, part of me wonders why he chose to tell this story as a film. There's nothing in this extremely low budget production that is particularly interesting on a visual level. I know how difficult it is to make a movie – am I crazy to ask why someone who has cracked novel writing, which seems to me about as likely a task as climbing Everest, would subject himself to the agita of independent filmmaking? Both are hard, but one you can do from home. Given the commercial potential of this movie, who knows which version of the story would have reached more people.
SCORE: 6.0 / 10