The first few minutes of John Sayles' Go for Sisters give a taste of what the director, one of the U.S.'s preeminent independent filmmakers, does best.
Sayles introduces us to Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), a parole officer assigned to monitor a onetime friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross). Their initial exchange, set in Bernice's office, highlights Sayles' ability to place his characters into a wider social and political context without sacrificing their individuality. Bernice asks Fontayne why she's been seen at bars known to be hangouts for drug dealers — a potential parole violation — to which Fontayne replies: "You know where I live there ain't nothing but that."
Moments later, Fontayne bitterly tells Bernice, "It must be fun, sitting there playing God on people." Bernice, apparently stung, lets her walk free without having to attend a hearing.
In just a few minutes, Sayles has portrayed more than just an awkward reunion between old acquaintances. (Later we'll find out they were in fact good friends in high school.) We see the consequences of early life choices, and the different paths the two walked down. We see the way that, once those choices have been made, attempts to recalibrate your life may be undone in spite of your will and fortitude.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Bernice and Fontayne will become a sideshow upstaged by an otherwise uninspired crime-drama plot: Learning that her son has gotten involved with rough characters and gone missing, Bernice asks Fontayne to use her drug-dealer contacts to help find him. Eventually the two connect with Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), a former cop who helps them track Bernice's son through Southern California and Mexico.
The deeper the plot takes us into a criminal underworld, the more Sayles grasps at plot points and appears plain bored. The structure of the film turns increasingly predictable: Scenes of the trio following leads that keep falling into their laps are interposed with increasingly repetitive conversations between Bernice and Fontayne.
Regardless of the tone it's searching for, the movie lacks a sense of urgency: What could have been a series of explosive chases after criminals in Mexico turns into a mostly staid if sometimes absurd trip through the borderland. And what could have been a rare, intimate portrait of two black female characters never pushes beyond a superficial profile.
Ultimately, that points to what's missing most: the world-building that Sayles in other cases has excelled at. In 1996's Lone Star, another film set on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sayles explored some of the same themes of race, class and nationalism that he looks at in Go for Sisters.
Lone Star, though, was steeped in questions of how myths, legends and forgotten histories shape a country and its people. Go for Sisters' stock characters and rote storylines offer us no comparably insightful lessons. At best, we get cursory musings about Bernice and Fontayne's shared past and disparate realities.
At worst, we get men who talk in cliches: Mexican narcos proclaiming that English is their second language and money is their first, or Freddy lamenting he had to "make a deal with the devil" to find out more about the son's location.
There are few enough directors with either Sayles' independent streak or his ability to parse the U.S.'s social and political divisions. In the best cases, the combination of the two makes his films vital. Go For Sisters, unfortunately, isn't the best case, even for itself.