Film Review: Go for Sisters

A border-crossing tale that thrives when focused on its charismatic and well-matched leads but ultimately stumbles the more it crosses into suspenseful terrain.

John Sayles melds character drama with nail-biting suspense to uneven results with Go for Sisters, the writer-director’s latest tale to take place around the U.S.-Mexico border. Sayles’ script centers on Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), a hard-case parole officer who doesn’t suffer her clients’ tall tales about violations lightly—except in the case of Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), a childhood friend whose infringement she ignores “for old times’ sake.” Their initial encounter bubbles with both Fontayne’s resentment at Bernice for escaping their hardscrabble past, and Bernice’s guilt over having evaded the pitfalls that drug addict and convicted felon Fontayne did not. Sayles lays this out with minimal didacticism and an attention to his protagonists’ conflicted emotions—an empathetic approach that continues once Bernice learns that her estranged son Rodney (McKinley Belcher III) has gone missing, and is in fact a suspect in the murder of a former acquaintance.

Determined to find Rodney but ignorant about the ins and outs of the criminal world in which he apparently lived, Bernice enlists the help of Fontayne, who, despite her determination to remain on the straight and narrow, agrees to help Bernice. Fontayne’s altruism seems a bit far-fetched given the two women’s circumstances, no matter their shared history—which also includes a high-school falling-out over a boy—but Hamilton and Ross’ rapport has a natural, easygoing familiarity that helps sell the duo as friends reunited after many years, and divergent experiences, apart. That’s vital to Go for Sisters, since its plot quickly becomes something of a rote, formulaic genre piece almost completely reliant on their engaging relationship for any sense of energetic momentum.

Inquiries into Rodney’s circumstances suggest that he’s been earning money smuggling people into the country from Mexico, and that he’s now been kidnapped by a Chinese gang angry at him for failing to complete a job—to the point that they’re now sending back body parts to express their displeasure, as well as demanding a $100,000 ransom. Bernice and Fontayne thus employ the aid of Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), a disgraced ex-LAPD officer who agrees, for a price, to help them in their rescue mission. With Freddy as their guide, the trio head to Tijuana, sneaking past border patrols by posing as a traveling band and then asking around until they find a variety of shady characters with a beat on Rodney’s whereabouts. That, in turn, leads to Freddy getting nabbed by, and then striking a deal with, a gang bigwig, and Bernice shooting a cop in the leg in order to halt him from sexually assaulting Fontayne—incidents which Sayles, employing his typically flat, bland visual style, stages with a leisurely lack of urgency that turns the film downright sleepy.

Just beneath Go for Sisters’ missing-person-investigation exterior lurk various undercurrents about people endeavoring to cross borders both literal and figurative in nature, be it Freddy straddling the line between legality and illegality, or Bernice and Fontayne coming to understand—through their underworld adventure together—each other and their different experiences. Alas, such thematic threads aren’t enough to prop up Sayles’ own drowsy drama, which ultimately stumbles—and strands its leads in the process—in trying to make the transition into thriller territory.