“You take things that look like nothing and make them look great,” Rebecca Danigelis says early on in “Duty Free,” explaining why she’s always been so fond of her work as a housekeeper. On the job for 40 years, she’s pored over every little detail of the rooms of guests at the hotel she works at in Boston, making their stay as pleasant as possible while collecting the money to support her two sons Gabriel, who suffers from schizophrenia, and Sian-Pierre Regis, who was able to go to college with the savings Rebecca had built up over the years. Still, this left less time and money around for herself, as Sian-Pierre finds out when Rebecca starts leaving increasingly fraught voice mails on his phone after she’s unceremoniously let go from the job she’s held for decades, not only facing eviction when she can’t pay the bills but also losing a sense of purpose when she feels fully capable of still being productive.
As much as “Duty Free” is about Rebecca, it’s understood from the start that with Sian-Pierre behind the camera that it is for her as well, using the prospect of a film to give her a diversion from the anxieties of applying for new work at 75 and thinking a little bit more frivolously about herself, arranging for a bucket list of things she’d like to do but never had the time to act on. Money is still a consideration as Rebecca moves in with Sian-Pierre and the film becomes the rare production to actually make its own Kickstarter campaign a part of its narrative arc, but ends up offering rewards that couldn’t have been foreseen by its backers at the time as Rebecca goes back to her native England to visit her brother Lenny and daughter Joanne, who she gave up on years ago, amidst other pursuits such as joining Instagram and taking hip-hop dance lessons.
The grim reality looms that this novel distraction to quell Rebecca’s own fears couldn’t apply to the millions who share the same fate, yet “Duty Free” remains quite conscious of them throughout as Rebecca’s reluctant steps online bring stories of others who have been laid off as a result of ageism, and nobly tempers its crowd pleasing potential as a carefree European adventure with detours back to the job fairs and applications that never seem to pan out despite Rebecca’s credentials. The film is endearingly handmade, no doubt necessitated by budgetary restraints and the fact that Rebecca never likely imagined herself being the subject of a film, nor did her son necessarily ever think he’d be making one, but a tasteful simplicity emerges in presenting the past with the handful of photographs that Regis has at his disposal and the unmediated engagement between the two allows for the complexities of the shifting dynamics of their relationship and the responsibilities they feel towards one another to come through over the three years the film covers. Certainly, it’s a labor of love, but one where both love and labor carry plenty of weight.