John Sayles, now in his fourth decade as an almost exclusively indie auteur, is often the target of jejune accusations that his work is anti-cinematic by some who see an absence of baroque pans or feverish editing as evidence of “not using the medium.” His screenplays observe human affairs subtly negotiated through dialogue, physical intimacy, or racial and institutional politics, often mixing character study with multi-stranded but sinewy narratives: Robert Altman on black coffee and toting a copy of The Nation. Sayles’s latest, Go for Sisters, pares the main dramatic personnel to two African-American women in Los Angeles who forge a practical alliance (and the guide who leads them into strange territory), but after an initial tight focus on the characters’ personal crises the plot wanders into a number of banal genre situations that neglect the movie’s heart. Bucking perceptions that he’s limited by having primarily a writer’s perspective, Sayles seems to force this self-described “border story” into tepid conventions of widescreen menace (and hijinks), undermining his lead actors’ commitment.
As Bernice, a widowed, no-nonsense LAPD parole officer, LisaGay Hamilton is pegged in the opening scene as a steely professional unmoved by alibis she hears daily from her pleading “clients,” but we don’t wait nearly long enough to see her soften. In short order she’s pressed into counseling Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), a former high school classmate and ex-con who’s skating on thin legal ice after being found in the company of drug felons. While Bernice is sufficiently stirred to give her old cheerleading pal a pass, she can’t mask her discomfort at the more vulnerable woman’s effusive gratitude (“I’m not part of your world,” Fontayne intuits as she leaves the parole office). But the cop’s plot-driving secret is that her ex-army son has fallen in with hoods, and when one of his circle is murdered, she determines to find her boy by calling in her former friend’s favor. “It’s fine, if you’re with me,” Bernice crisply rationalizes, as the pair hit up assorted street hustlers and Fontayne’s now-prim prison lover (Vanessa Martinez) for tips, and finally hiring scandalized ex-detective Freddy “The Terminator” Suárez (Edward James Olmos) to lead them through the mean alleys of Tijuana, then Mexicali, where the missing young man has been kidnapped after running afoul of mobsters smuggling undocumented Chinese immigrants into the U.S.
That initial sizing-up between the two uneasy allies is the plain highlight of Go for Sisters; Hamilton’s guarded, hesitant mother and Ross’s statuesque, weary penitent are both persuasively non-idealized representatives of modern urban feminine strength. Their conversations, however, are increasingly shoehorned into narrative breaks where the nuts and bolts of road-movie suspense don’t need tending. (As Bernice launches into a lengthy hotel-room monologue on her kid’s schoolboy football injury, you can almost hear the keyboard clacking.) Olmos’s half-blind, Rickenbacker-picking rogue lawman is less cutesy than he reads because the actor avoids hammy moves by expending the SAG-permitted minimum of physical energy; his instincts are honed enough to get by wheezing out aphorisms about Tijuana being “a theme park” of depravity. While the women’s growing interdependence becomes increasingly defined by gunfire and improvised treks through border-town underworlds, that early, quiet dynamism of Hamilton and Ross’s duet still resurfaces intermittently, before being elbowed aside for a chase or broad comic relief. Once the unlikely search party has resolved the fate of a truckload of smuggled immigrant chinos, a coda between the two renewed friends in a trash-salvaging plant feels gratuitous, as Sayles has already spent half the film recycling familiar tropes.