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SXSW Review: ‘GO FOR SISTERS’ Illustrates the Best and Worst of John Sayles

SXSW Review: 'GO FOR SISTERS' Illustrates the Best and Worst of John Sayles

For decades now, John Sayles has written and directed movies rooted first and foremost in sharply conceived characters. More recently, even as his scrappy, self-financed productions have varied in quality, this central aspect has remained in place. “GO FOR SISTERS,” like the filmmaker’s previous features “Amigo” and “Honeydripper,” sustains a feeble premise with richly defined characters and strong performances, yielding an underwhelming but nonetheless sustainable viewing experience.

Stepping away from the period drama territory of his last two movies, Sayles returns to noir turf, with serious-minded parole officer Berenice (LisaGay Hamilton) heading south of the border with estranged old friend Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) in a bid to find Berenice’s missing son, the suspect in a criminal investigation. The two women reconnect in the movie’s opening scene, which finds the semi-reformed drug addict Fontayne assigned to Berenice during her parole.

As echoes from early days of their friendship return to them, the women slowly pick up the trail of Berenice’s son, eventually enlisting the help of hardened ex-detective Freddy Suárez (an enjoyably no-nonsense Edward James Olmos) who used to go by the nickname “The Terminator.” Once the trio assembles for their trip to Mexico, the story grows increasingly seedy, with the group facing down criminals and grabbing clues left and right.

Collectively, these personalities are so well drawn that one could easily see their experiences stretched out across a television series (Olmos’ Terminator, with his bag of tricks for digging through the criminal underworld, provides enough fodder for a spin-off). Yet while it runs just over two hours, “GO FOR SISTERS” has a fairly uninteresting plot that routinely suffers from a lack of clever hooks and enticing mystery. Sayles puts so much effort into deepening his protagonists that they eventually become stock characters, an issue that often creeps into his screenplays (and also explains his Hollywood screenwriting success).

The movie gets a terrific boost from Kathryn Westergaard’s atmospheric cinematography, creating an engaging atmosphere that routinely goes nowhere. Sayles’ reliance on cheesy music cues and other simplistic genre tropes show the seams of overly familiar ingredients flimsily hung around excessive backstory that, while intriguing, fails to build any emotional substance outside of Fontayne and Berenice’s credible relationship.

Their chemistry never syncs with the enjoyable but comparatively silly caricature of Olmos’ detective, the sort of jaded, by-the-numbers retired tough guy rather sloppily borrowed from the John Wayne playbook. The villains of the story, meanwhile, are vaguely defined and so tangential that the entire narrative feels like an excuse to merely bat its characters around, but there’s simply not enough for them to do to make that proposition worthwhile.  While “GO FOR SISTERS” rarely pulls off anything remarkable, with its the disarmingly consistent tone and indisputably clean structure, the movie never falls apart; instead, it just drags along, patiently doing nothing of interest that it hasn’t established by its first unobtrusive act.

Ever since “Return of the Secaucas 7,” Sayles has managed to explore the nuances of interpersonal dramas with undeniable finesse, but that consistency frequently comes at the expense of making the world around his creations interesting as well. There’s a running conflict in these narratives as they pit complexity against rigid dramatic formats that demand a greater element of surprise or intrigue than the listlessness of “GO FOR SISTERS.” It’s worth mentioning that Sayles has commendably produced the sort of project Hollywood rarely churns out — that is, one driven by two African American female leads — but otherwise the ideas here lack inspiration. The movie illustrates that talented craftsmanship isn’t necessarily equatable to great art.

Criticwire grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Readymade for VOD, the movie will likely get a modest self-release and garner some attention through the filmmaker’s own efforts, but long-term commercial prospects are dim.

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