‘Sisters’: John Sayles hits target in sharp border tale

John Sayles’ long career (the indie pioneer’s directing debut, “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” dates to 1979) has never flagged in its sober commitment to exploring social issues. But he’s a realist; he knows audiences like stories.

And after a handful of iffy box-office performers, Sayles cozies up to an out-and-out genre picture with “Go for Sisters,” which — perhaps not coincidentally — is also his best in more than a decade.

For by-the-book L.A. parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), life is uncharacteristically out of her control: Her adult son, a combat vet, is missing after getting mixed up in some dodgy border trouble. The only person who can help is Bernice’s former high-school friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), a recovering addict and ex-con.

While playing Nancy Drew, they get into dicey situations in Tijuana and Mexicali and enlist the service of disgraced ex-cop Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), a low-talking freelancer whose instincts are as good as his eyesight is bad.

The fact that this plotline seems as contrived as the average TV cop show hardly detracts from the well-honed precision of Sayles’ dialogue or the beauty of the central performances.

In other words, this is one of those examples of a hook — can the trio find Bernice’s son and avoid getting killed in the process? — carrying the weight of a serious study of milieu and character.

Sayles’ interests here include the haplessness of illegal immigrants and the strange role played by the Chinese in attempting entry into the U.S. through Mexico, as well as society’s tendency to mark a false division between sinners and innocents.

Happily, all of that comes through without sacrificing our interest in this specific troupe of searchers.

Ross, statuesque and street-smart, makes us believe in the weakness of her generally good-hearted character, and Olmos — even though he’s done this kind of guy before — is never less than satisfying to watch.

Freddy used to be known as “El Terminator,” but his lethal powers must’ve been subtle, because at this point in his disappointed life he’s underplaying like a man who’s seen it all and is resigned to how bad this could get.

Best of all, the movie hands a big role to LisaGay Hamilton, a well-traveled performer (she had regular roles on “The Practice” and “Men of a Certain Age”) who almost never lets you catch her acting.

In spots where “Go for Sisters” strains to connect its plot points with implausible behavior, Hamilton’s steady gaze and no-nonsense delivery practically dare you to raise an objection.

I, for one, was sufficiently intimidated on that score, and stayed engrossed throughout.

“Go for Sisters” (three stars)

Indie veteran John Sayles has his best film in years here, a sharp (if not always plausible) blend of social issues, tart dialogue and strong character studies. LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross play former friends who investigate a family disappearance along the Mexican border; Edward James Olmos is the disgraced ex-cop they hire for help.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for language, violence.

Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown.

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