"Go For Sisters"

According to writer-director John Sayles, had he given “Go for Sisters” a Spanish title, it would have been “La Chinesca,” the nickname for Mexicali’s Chinatown neighborhood. Sure enough, if it weren’t for the sheer intensity of the south-of-the-border sun, “Go for Sisters” would be a film noir, Jake, tracking a ball-buster parole officer who will stop at nothing to retrieve her grown son from the criminals he’s gotten himself mixed up with. True to his nature, Sayles places most of his attention on culture and character, rather than the stock-sounding plot, crafting a smart, if strangely forgettable, half-million-dollar arthouse alternative to megaplex procedurals.

Watching Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) deny parole violators’ heartfelt pleas, one can only imagine what kind of mother she must have been. Since coming back to L.A. from the service, her son Rodney (McKinley Belcher III) hasn’t made an effort to stay in contact, and Bernice doesn’t have much better luck holding on to friends or lovers, as she’s reminded when a half-forgotten high-school acquaintance shows up in her office.

In Bernice’s eyes, everyone is guilty of something, but in an uncommon act of compassion, she decides to cut Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) a break. Back in school, they were inseparable (the title itself is slang for two friends who look similar enough to pass for sisters), but all that changed when Fontayne stole Bernice’s boyfriend, possibly seeding the trust issues Bernice still has.

Craving redemption for not only her recent drug problems but also that long-ago slight, Fontayne promises to help her old friend should she ever need a favor. Sure enough, after her son disappears, Bernice comes calling. The cops think Rodney is responsible for murdering one of his friends, but Bernice believes otherwise, enlisting Fontayne and an ex-LAPD detective named Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos) to help her track him down. (Why she ends up at the crime scene is a rare loose end in a script that slavishly connects its dots.)

Though nearly blind, Suarez has a bloodhound’s gift for picking up a trail, and he leads the two women across the border. Though this is territory rendered ominous by “Touch of Evil” and countless other films, Sayles flips the equation, contrasting the eruption of life and color he finds in Tijuana and Mexicali with a cold, bloodless view of Los Angeles.

Sayles uses a staggering number of locations for a film shot in 19 days on a tight budget, only to undermine much of that energy in the editing, delivering an overlong cut that’s dense on plot (arguably the least interesting thing about the film) and dull whenever it chooses to indulge quiet moments among characters. Like too many of Sayles’ films, “Go for Sisters” seems bound to slip through the cracks, not quite memorable enough to make a lasting impression.

Stylistically, the pic shares the unfussy, first-take/only-take feel of a Clint Eastwood picture, suggesting genuine trust in its talented cast (which includes day-player roles for Hector Elizondo, Isaiah Washington and Harold Perrineau). From Sayles’ own filmography, the most similar film might be “Lone Star,” though the helmer’s political message is subtler this time.

Working with an almost exclusively black and Latino cast, he toys with stereotypes, revealing how lopsided drug enforcement practices create a culture of crime in minority communities — a factor clearest in the way he lets the mystery behind Rodney’s disappearance brew almost entirely in auds’ imaginations.

Go for Sisters

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 11, 2013. Running time: 123 MIN.

An Anarchists’ Convention presentation in association with Olmos Prods., Go for Films. Produced by Edward James Olmos, Alejandro Springall, Peter Bobrow.

Directed, written, edited by John Sayles. Camera (color), Kat Westergaard; music, Mason Daring; production designer, Mara A. Spear; art director, Kevin Long; set decorator, Linda Natze Ruiz; costume designer, Dana Rebecca Woods; sound (Dolby Digital), Caleb A. Mose; supervising sound editor, Glenfield Payne; re-recording mixers, Robert Fernandez, Payne; assistant director, Liz Regan; casting, Cindy Tolan.

With: Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, Hector Elizondo, Harold Perrineau, Isaiah Washington, Vanessa Martinez, Jesse Borrego, Elizabeth Sung, McKinley Belcher III.

(English, Spanish dialogue)

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