No matter the veracity of its basic premise, “Sister Aimee” is upfront about its fictitiousness, claiming that “5½ percent is truth. The rest is imagination.” Unfortunately, the invention on display is of a helter-skelter variety, as Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s film so madly lurches about in search of a tone that it feels like the first draft of a gonzo faux-biopic. To be sure, there’s a method to its madcap decision to play fast and loose with the facts. But even with a distinctly feminist edge, it’s difficult to envision many being stirred by its careening spirit.
“Sister Aimee” is a made-up tall tale about what happened to the actual Sister Aimee Semple McPherson — a nationally famous 1920s Evangelical preacher who rocketed to stardom thanks to her canny use of radio — when, in 1926, she vanished for five weeks following a swim in Venice Beach, Calif. She’d eventually reappear in Mexico, claiming she’d been kidnapped, and inciting a media firestorm thanks to accusations that she’d instead simply run off with a lover. Buck and Schlingmann’s film certainly believes that to have been the scandalous case, opening with Aimee (Anna Margaret Hollyman) hopping into the sack with wannabe writer Kenny (Michael Mosley) and then absconding to Mexico City with him, where he hopes to pen stories about legendary adventure and common-people heroes, and she can escape a revivalist business on the rocks.
This get-up-and-go turn of events is dramatized in hasty fashion, such that one only has a bare-bones conception of Aimee’s reasons for wanting to flee the spotlight before she’s on the road with veritable stranger Kenny. It doesn’t help that Hollyman and Mosley share little chemistry, nor that Hollyman is more believable as an average woman on the run than a renowned religious icon through whom God heals the wounded, even when she’s dressed in her trademark white robe decorated by a giant bejeweled cross. Shortly after departing, the duo are joined in Kenny’s luxury sedan by Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a Mexican guide with a stern countenance and an equally formidable no-nonsense demeanor — and also a trunk that, Aimee discovers, contains guns she’s smuggling to peasant revolutionaries in her home country.
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Interspersed throughout are cutaways to police interviews with a variety of figures from Aimee’s earlier years, which instigate flashbacks that strain to provide context for the protagonist’s current path. There’s a haphazardness both to the way “Sister Aimee” segues between the past and present, and to these snippets themselves, which end almost as soon as they begin and are shot with a franticness that’s endemic to the entire enterprise. There’s also a recurring expressionistic vision of Kenny’s yarn about Pancho Villa dodging certain death courtesy of a mysterious savior (who sliced five heads with one stroke of his blade), further adding to the film’s chaotic atmosphere.
In that Pancho Villa fable, “Sister Aimee” touches upon one of its central concerns: the power of myth, and storytelling. That idea is complemented by a fascination with female agency, independence and identity, felt in Aimee’s growing (and latently romantic) bond with Rey. It’s in these two women’s rapport that Buck and Schlingmann’s film feels most assured, although any steadiness is fleeting, as the material continually zigs and zags in any number of directions, kept on course only by cinematographer Carlos Valdes-Lora’s moody panoramas of the Mexican plains and Graham Reynolds’ jaunty score.
After a series of incidents that aren’t nearly as wacky as they want to be, a late tap-dancing musical number finally delivers the showstopping goods, providing Hollyman with a grand opportunity to strut her charismatic stuff. In the process, though, it offers a glimpse of the truly out-there absurdity that should have been these uneven proceedings’ calling card.