At my SXSW screening of “Go For Sisters,” the person charged with introducing John Sayles’ latest film was obligated to read that the filmmaker was responsible for “starting the modern independent film movement in the 1880s.” While she blamed late-week festival fatigue for the slipup, it actually has felt like Sayles’ shadow has loomed large over everything that’s followed that long, including his own work in recent years. For the writer/director, staying independent hasn’t meant only who is paying for his films, but the way he tells his stories, stubbornly refusing to chase trends or innovate when he simply invests in the strong actors and strong dialogue to make his movies work.
“Go For Sisters” is a prime example of this, a laid-back mystery in the vein of some of his finest work in the ’90s such as “Lone Star” and “Men With Guns,” bringing together Lisa Gay Hamilton and Yolanda Ross as a pair of childhood friends who went their separate ways and reunite years later on different sides of the law when Hamilton’s Bernice becomes the parole officer for Ross’ Fontayne. The two are weary of each other, and Bernice wants to unload Fontayne onto another officer as soon as possible to abide by regulations, but Bernice does Fontayne a solid for old times’ sake and little does she know she’ll need the favor returned when her teenage son goes missing, thought to be lost in the underworld Fontayne is believed to have more connections in. Soon enough, they hire a former police investigator nicknamed “The Terminator” (Edward James Olmos) and the three head to Tijuana on a tip that Bernice’s son was somehow connected to a smuggling operation involving Chinese immigrants.
If there were any justice in the world, a film industry so hellbent on creating franchises would seize an opportunity to keep what Sayles starts here going since the relaxed chemistry between Olmos, Hamilton and Ross is what drives the film, their personalities more than making up for a few plotholes in the mystery and some directorial choices distinctly out of sync with the times, whether it’s an overdramatic jolt of sound when a severed finger is revealed or the obviously fake cash that Bernice gives to the Terminator for his $2000 upfront fee.
Instead, it’s the backstories that are the film’s most real and effective currency, with the longtime friends slowly reconstructing each other’s lives after they lost touch and deconstructing why they did and the former cop slyly revealing at every turn why they were wise to trust him and why the police dismissed him before he could earn his pension. Tough times have affected them all and the way economic uncertainty motivates their decisions makes the film as relevant as anything Sayles has filmed while adding a desperation that’s palpable throughout.
Those same strictures likely guided “Go For Sisters” as a production, bearing the spare look of something shot on the cheap rather than a creative choice, though cinematographer Kathryn Westergaard does an admirable job of sprucing up the tight closeups and getting the most out of the film’s many locations, particularly once the film heads to Mexico. Sayles also peppers the film with familiar faces to check in for just a scene such as Isaiah Washington and “Treme”’s Mahershala Ali, keeping things interesting even if they’re diversions that only deepen the characters’ background rather than the central story. But “Go For Sisters” prefers the roads less traveled — only in a Sayles film would a car chase be interrupted for a stop for gas – and for those that enjoy the scenic route, it’s an bumpy yet agreeable ride.