John Sayles holds a unique place in American film. For over three decades, he’s written and directed smart independent films on his own terms, financing his work with occasional forays into Hollywood script doctoring. A Sayles film is centered on intelligent dialogue; diverse, well-rounded characters; and, usually, themes of social and political significance. The people in a Sayles film don’t live in a private vacuum, shielded from social problems and events. Sometimes politics take center stage, other times, as in his latest film Go For Sisters, they just form part of the environment.
The story of Go For Sisters concerns Bernice, a Los Angeles parole officer played by LisaGay Hamilton, who finds that one of her clients is an old high school friend named Fontayne, played by Yolonda Ross. The striking, statuesque Fontayne has seen hard times, and her face reveals years of struggle and weariness. She’s trying to stay clean from drugs now, and Bernice gives her a break after an apparent parole violation. But, when Bernice discovers that her son, mixed up in a dangerous immigrant smuggling operation, has gone missing near the Mexican border, she enlists her old friend for help. Their roles become somewhat mixed up. It’s Bernice who is cutting corners now, as she ironically asks Fontayne to reenter the criminal world she was trying to escape from; and it is Fontayne who finds herself trying to put a brake on Bernice’s somewhat wild behavior.
The film’s awkward title, Go For Sisters, is from what people used to say about them when they were teens—they’re so alike they could go for sisters.
Fontayne enlists the help of a crusty ex-cop from San Diego named Freddy Suarez, fired for some serious infraction, and humorously nicknamed “The Terminator” for his talent for finishing a job. Suarez is played by Edward James Olmos, now in his late 60s and thoroughly settled into iconic character actor status. Olmos is a pleasure to watch. Slouching through the film in a cowboy hat, grumbling his lines laconically, he puts on a clinic on how to dominate every scene that you’re in. There comes a time in a good actor’s career when being in front of the camera becomes as natural as breathing, and Olmos has the complete presence and authority of a movie star who doesn’t need to prove a thing.
The three characters end up in Tijuana, scraping their way, sometimes improbably, out of danger and into further intrigue. When Fontayne says, “Now we’re in Mexico,” Suarez replies, “This isn’t Mexico. This is a theme park for bad behavior.” It’s typical of the kind of throwaway wit that Sayles always brings to his work. It’s a genre picture, not trying to be too much, which is a rare virtue, and the plot is more of a way for the characters to reveal themselves than anything else. But around the edges are themes of working class struggle, living on the edge between crime and the law, and the lonely stories of illegal immigrants.
Also we have two African American women as our main characters (Hamilton and Ross are both very good), and accompanied by a world-weary Latino. Another great thing about Sayles: his heroes are usually people who don’t get to be heroes in Hollywood films. Go For Sisters is not one of his great movies; it’s just thoroughly enjoyable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.