As clear as it becomes that Sister Aimee Semple-McPherson (Anna Margaret Hollyman) does nothing halfway, it is mid-coitus in Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s marvelous “Sister Aimee” that comes up with an escape plan from her native Los Angeles, listening to the man on whose lap she’s sitting prattle on about his dream of traveling to Mexico to write a book. She can’t be bothered to learn his name before exchanging fluids – it’s Kenny (Michael Mosley), by the way – but she is aroused in hearing he’s headed south, having lost her touch at laying hands on the masses that seek her spiritual counsel as a popular Pentecostal evangelist and eager to disappear into a new life.
Buck and Schlingmann only want to look back slightly more than Semple-McPherson, despite an incredible life story, brilliantly figuring out how presenting her past in pieces as seen through the eyes of those who have been in her life at one point or another offer up the blind spots she’s used to fleece them. These recollections come during a police investigation into Aimee’s disappearance, thought to be pulled into the sea with her mother (Julie White), her ex-husband (Macon Blair) and her competition, Reverend Billy Sunday (Bill Wise), all appear eager to speak ill of the dead. Yet Aimee is very much alive, if not necessarily well when she and Kenny rechristen themselves as Dot and Steven Orimston, names he picked, but she takes ownership of quickly, as she does everything else in her life.
Announcing upfront “Sister Aimee” is based on a true story from the 1920s with around “5 1/2% of truth,” it is the work of people who give it 110%, an endlessly entertaining and inventive character study of a woman underestimated at every turn by those who are given too much credit to begin with. Buck and Schlingmann actually give audiences two for the price of one, bringing in Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a guide hired by Steven to show he and Dot the sights of the Southwest before making it to the border. Although Steven thinks he’s making a grand romantic gesture, the love story actually unfolds between Aimee and Rey, recognizing in each other a cunning and resourcefulness that has enabled them to survive a world of mediocre men.
Recalling the brassy celluloid heroines of the era the film takes place in, Hollyman and Suarez Paz make an indomitable pair, working with mere squints of their eyes to get huge laughs and just as Buck and Schlingmann structure the film around how Aimee and Rey surprise themselves with their own strength, the actresses deliver consistently revelatory performances that give “Sister Aimee” something extra even when it hardly lacks for energy. A considerable part of the film’s liveliness comes from top-notch production values, whether it’s Jonathan Rudak’s colorful production design and costume designer Juliana Hoffpauir’s emotive garments and frequent Richard Linklater composer Graham Reynolds outdoes himself with musical accompaniment that radiates the mischief, mystery and curiosity that makes the film such a delight. Buck and Schlingmann’s naughty pre-code sensibilities give the film additional bite, but what they’ve created is blazingly original and while “Sister Aimee” sees its star running away from the Lord, you can expect to be saying “Praise Be” by the end.
“Sister Aimee” will screen at Sundance on January 31st at 12:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City, February 1st at 3 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room and February 2nd at 2:30 pm at the MARC Theatre in Park City.