The independent film movement of the late 80s and early 90s is populated with many familiar names. Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater are among the chief directors who made a name for themselves during that time period. Unfortunately, these are directors who are finding it increasingly difficult to make films. Soderbergh has stepped away from filmmaking altogether. Lee goes to Kickstarter in order to finance his personal visions. And Linklater keeps on chugging away making films at a shoestring budget in under 30 days. John Sayles, who began working in the early 80s and has since directed over 15 films, has been an outlier within this group. Very much part of the independent film movement, his work never had the revered notoriety that the aforementioned filmmakers had. Go For Sisters, his new film and my first experience with Sayles, is an impressively-written (if not scattered) balancing act of sisterly devotion and global politics - essentially proving why a director like Sayles has remained on the outside looking in during the independent film movement.
Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) is assigned a parole officer following a series of drug busts. Much to her surprise, it’s an old friend from high school who gets assigned to her case. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is first seen scrutinizing the concerns of one her cases. It’s surprising to see Bernice accept Fontayne’s case, in large part because she’s portrayed as a very judicious and analytical person - by accepting Fontayne’s case, Bernice puts her job in danger as protocol dictates that a parole officer is not to have a prior history with anyone they are assigned to. An act of loyalty rather than selfishness, Bernice reluctantly ends up using Fontayne’s connections in an effort to find her missing son. What the two women slowly uncover is a murky trail of globalized crime, involving Mexican smugglers and Chinese migrant workers.
Go For Sisters really shouldn’t work as effectively as it does. The globalized chaos operates at odds with the insular drama found between its two lead characters. But the key to the film’s success stems from the rich ensemble cast, including the aforementioned Ross and Hamilton, and Edward James Olmos in one of the best supporting turns of the year. The timeliness of the subject matter has an immediacy that’s thoroughly felt and realized wonderfully by the cast. Sayles’ skill with dialogue is of particular note, especially given the variety of voices heard throughout the film. Fontayne is of lower-class origins, Bernice a product of middle-class upbringing and the rest of the cast ranges from Mexican locales to Chinese migrant workers. There’s a refreshing quality of hearing these actors utter such rich dialogue. But the biggest fault against the film stems from its bland visual components. Sayles, who functions as editor on the project as well, doesn’t show a lot of finesse in his construction of imagery and action. Digital filmmaking in the hands of the right filmmakers can be a thing of beauty, as seen in Soderbergh’s work, but Sayles simply doesn’t have the same penchant for imagery that he has for dialogue. The end result is a visually dull though stimulating novelistic picture anchored by performance above all. Sayles satisfies a particular cinematic pleasure, but can only compensate for so much until you’re craving something more.