Filmmaker John Sayles has been living on the fringes of independent cinema since his 1979 debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven, and even if he has lost a few steps over the decades, he regained his footing with 2013’s Go For Sisters, a “ripped from the headlines” hook about the shadowy goings-on of the U.S./Mexico border that becomes infused with local flavor and old-fashioned detective work reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler novel. 

In the hands of another director, Go For Sisters could have been mired by the procedural aspects of detective work and the political maneuvering between gangs, local officers, and border patrol. Sayles dispenses all that in favor of deeply developed characters: Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), two girls who were so close as children that they could “go for sisters” or at least pass as relatives. 

As it goes in childhood, Bernice and Fontayne’s friendship was at the mercy of their families’ paths, and they ended up going in separate directions. Neither could have predicted how separate until Fontayne, an ex-convict, entered the office of Bernice, now a parole officer. It was strictly a chance meeting, but chance meetings in movies have lasting effects.

The story: Bernice’s son, Dez (Mahershala Ali), is missing, and Bernice reaches out to Fontayne for help. A little investigation leads them to believe Dez may have been kidnapped by a Chinese gang and taken south to Tijuana. The two hire a retired lawman turned private eye, Freddy (Edward James Olmos), to help track down Dez. Freddy suffers from a rare eye disease that is rapidly taking his sight, and he takes the case as a chance to get his feet under him one last time.

Go For Sisters slowly reveals itself through twists and turns while developing characters alongside the world they inhabit. While the three searches for Dez, Sayles gives the audience a walking tour of Tijuana’s backside, a side that no casual tourist would be privy to. The trio uncovers more than a simple missing person case, and a very complex and profitable abduction and kidnapping system is revealed. 

Sayles occasionally paints with a broad brush when depicting the community of Tijuana (the Chinese gang, in particular, feels more like an after-school special than a wholly realized entity), but it is in the quiet moments of characters talking to one another where truth is revealed. The more we learn about Bernice, Fontayne, and Freddie, the less we see them as characters and the more we see them as people doing the best they can with the hand they’re dealt.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Go For Sisters (2013)
Written and directed by John Sayles
Produced by Peter Bobrow, Edward James Olmos, Alejandro Springall
Starring: LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, Edward James Olmos, Mahershala Ali, Hector Elizondo
Variance Films, Not rated, Running time 123 minutes, Opened March 11, 2013

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 5, “Activism with an authentic flavor.”