Filmmakers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann aren’t promising the truth in their often wily, occasionally weird “Sister Aimee”: the film opens with a scroll that explains that only “5.5 percent” of what follows is real, the rest is pure imagination. Yet 5.5 percent of the duo’s chosen subject is enough to yield some jaw-dropping revelations, and even the stuff the writers and directors make up about the 1926 disappearance of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (the always-stellar Anna Margaret Hollyman) is nutty enough to fit in alongside the mythos of a religious figure who was, at one time, second only to the pope in her popularity. Despite a modern unawareness surrounding Semple McPherson and her wild life — just look at her wholly bonkers Wikipedia page! — much of it is indeed worthy of the big screen treatment, perhaps even a decade-spanning limited series.
For their snappy 87-minute feature, Buck and Schlingmann focus in on Semple McPherson’s most notorious experience (crime? adventure? hard to say), using the five weeks that the real Semple McPherson went “missing” in Mexico as a way to re-examine the “famous evangelist and show woman” in a self-aware framework. The disappearance has previously inspired a handful of other film adaptations — including a 1976 made-for-television movie starring Faye Dunaway and an ultra-low-budget feature made in the mid-aughts — but Buck and Schlingmann craft a feature that happily adds in questions about ambition, feminism, and power (heavenly or not). For a striving woman like Semple McPherson, recontextualizing her journey into seemingly contemporary terms isn’t too big of a jump, and “Sister Aimee” pairs big ideas with quirky style.
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It doesn’t always come together. While Buck and Schlingmann have created a heightened world for Aimee to play inside, a roaring ’20s environment filled with zippy intertitles, constantly snapping old-time cameras, and excellent period costuming, they waver between delivering a wacky faux history and paying respect to Semple McPherson the actual person. Hollyman easily finds the balance between tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top, but the film around her isn’t always up to the task, meandering from episode to episode, with only its shining star able to hold its center. Is it silly? Serious? Feminist? Faithful? It’s only Hollyman who is able to pull all those disparate ideas and tones together (and with plenty of singing to boot!).
Elsewhere, Buck and Schlingmann have some fun toying with the concept of being called to something, and it’s only right that the film opens with the wildly popular evangelist flaming out in front of a sea of her dedicated followers. But the old tricks aren’t working, and Sister Aimee is about to be required somewhere very different. Convinced that her power (if there ever was any) is fading and enlivened by the sudden appearance of an unexpected new lover, Aimee hits the road with the starry-eyed Steven (Michael Mosley), bent on driving to Mexico to meet some powerful types of a different stripe.
Back in California, a devoted follower is tasked with telling a tale about Aimee “evaporating” from the sea, all while increasingly addled detectives interview the various players in her life. Easily flipping between Aimee and Steven’s on-the-road adventures, the investigation into her so-called disappearance, and flashbacks to her off-kilter life, sharp editing keeps the film ticking right along. Aimee was “missing” for just over a month, but “Sister Aimee” attempts to cram in a lifetime’s worth of personal evolution into one film (though anyone who knows even a smidge of what happened after she returned to America is surely gutted that it doesn’t find a place in the film, beyond the end credits).
Soon enough, Aimee and Steven have teamed up with a steely guide, Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), who has her own secrets to hide. Half of her appeal (to Steven and the audience, and then Aimee herself) is how tough she is — “She’s a woman who is just taking care of herself!,” Steve tells Aimee, not at all understanding the full force of his statement — and how little she appears to recognize the very famous Aimee as she attempts to slip away to a foreign country. While Aimee is initially dubious of the seemingly unbothered Rey, she soon finds herself drawn to the one person in the entire equation who appears to have a grip on the world and her place in it.
While Buck and Schlingmann dance around the nature of Aimee and Rey’s bond — Steven freely calls Aimee his muse; soon, it seems as if inspiration is blossoming between the ladies and no one else — “Sister Aimee” merrily serves up an inspirational, oddly amusing story with a compelling relationship at its center. The real Semple McPherson eventually returned back to the real world, walking out of the Mexican desert and claiming kidnapping, and by the time Hollyman does the same after her own imagined adventure, it doesn’t matter what the truth is anymore.
“Sister Aimee” played at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.