To judge from John Sayles’ latest, everyone in Tijuana’s Chinatown is involved in human trafficking. It is not quite the case of profiling that it might sound like. Everybody in the sin-ridden border town is up to something according to Sayles’ Go for Sisters (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Back in the day, Bernice and Fontayne were close friends and fellow cheerleaders. Then a mister came between the two high school girls who could “go for sisters.” They went their very divergent ways after their falling out. Twenty years later, Bernice is the by-the-book parole officer assigned Fontayne’s case. At first, she wants none of her former friend’s excuses, but she uncharacteristically gives Fontayne a pass on a minor infraction. Initially, she is a little uncomfortable with Fontayne’s resulting gratitude, but she soon calls in the marker.
Apparently her son has fallen in with the criminal element and has gone missing south of the border. Bernice will need Fontayne’s help navigating the shadowy world of gangs and vice. Obviously, human trafficking is a little out of the recovering addict’s league, so they duly recruit the more seasoned services of Freddy “The Terminator” Suárez, a disgraced ex-cop who knows people on both sides of the law and both sides of the border.
To an extent, Sisters represents something of a return to form for Sayles after the profoundly disappointing anti-imperialist finger-wagging of Amigo. Like his best films, Sisters is a character-driven affair that lets every quietly revelatory scene play out in its own patient time.
However, his thriller mechanics are a bit rusty. We never really see any of the bad guys and frankly they never act all that menacing. (Particularly problematic, the few Asian characters we briefly encounter are clumsy stereotypes, such as Mother Han, the Godmother of the Tijuana Chinatown mob.) Sayles might be a veteran writer for hire, but he would make Chekhov wince when the mysterious smuggling tunnel Bernice and Fontayne are invited to explore never factors at all in the later narrative.
What works for Sisters are its three primary co-leads. LisaGay Hamilton and Yolanda Ross are terrific together, convincingly conveying all the complicated history shared by Bernice and Fontayne. As Suárez, Edward James Olmos raises steely reserve to a high art. It is also nice to see Hector Elizondo turn up in a cameo, even if his scene serves little dramatic purpose.
Despite the supposed ticking clock, Sisters ambles along at Sayles’ typically unhurried pace. It feels like a Sayles movie, which is cool, even if it undercuts its genre ambitions. Even if it is not a breakneck thriller, Sayles provides a sympathetic showcase for his cast. Refreshingly free of polemics, Go for Sisters is recommended (with respect rather than passion) for those who appreciate understated drama. It opens tomorrow (11/8) in New York at the AMC Empire and the Village East.