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‘Sister Aimee,’ a Film About an Evangelist on the Run, Needs a Miracle

Sister Aimee

Film critic Manuel Betancourt says the Sundance film "Sister Aimee" is “an admirable miss.”

There's a moment late in Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann Sister Aimee where the titular character is asked to tell a story. She's an entertainer after all (a popular evangelist in 1920s California, though she's left all that behind). Her life on the line, she tries to impress her captors. The desperation, though, is too obvious. She knows she might fail, despite the fact that hers is a fascinating tale. Bored with her previous life as a flashy preacher and healer, she planned an escape. She convinced her disciples that she "evaporated" while swimming out on the Pacific (with some help from a devout friend), a story that's solidified her mythos before crumbling in the ensuing months when it becomes clear she'd fled. Since, she's been on the way to Mexico City with someone else's husband and a stoic guide. But her performance lacks energy and comes off as much too anguished. The effort strains those hoping her story will come alive (as it does eventually when her monologue turns into a full-blown musical tap number). The moment feels emblematic of the film as a whole. There's so much here, but it only ever comes alive in all too brief and belated spurts.

That's a pity because the married directing and writing duo have assembled a competent and at times beguiling trio of actors. As Sister Aimee, Anna Margaret Hollyman has the appeal of a young Melanie Lynskey, equally able to sell her character's dry humor and the seductive quality she needs to convince us thousands of lost souls would cling to her flashy evangelical sermons. In that final number she's sublime. In her bit role as Aimee's mother, stage veteran Julie White all but jolts the film awake, getting one of the funniest lines on the script: in explaining why Sister Aimee tap dances, she earnestly answers that "God tickles her feet." Similarly, Michael Mosley's smitten and bumbling wannabe-writer Kenny, who's so keen on telling Mexican folk tales from the recent revolution across the border, has a winning charm that earns laughs throughout. But it is Andrea Suarez Paz as the mysterious, butch Rey that deserves a tighter and more sprightly film. Beneath her gruff demeanor, Rey is the kind of character Kenny wants to write about and the kind of alluring figure Sister Aimee once was to many others. With her hair tied back, and an unassuming demeanor, Suarez Perez is able to convey a complexity that is ultimately as intriguing to audiences as it is to Aimee (or "Dot" as she goes by while on the road).

The chemistry between the two women, though palpable, remains oblique throughout, especially the more Aimee gets to know Rey's backstory and involvement in heroic feats during the Mexican revolution and thereafter. Their relationship emboldens them both, with a tender and platonic dynamic evolving as Aimee roughens up (she trades her floral dress for a pair of pants) and Rey mellows down (opening up and joining in song). One wishes their bond were not as schematic, but ultimately the tone Buck and Schlingmann have settled on is one which encourages such a take. These are characters drawn broadly, the kind you'd conjure up from radio plays heard in the 1920s.

This is not to say the movie doesn't have plenty to say. At its heart,Sister Aimee is a meditation on storytelling. Aimee's sermons and shows -- in the opening scene she's supposed to be healing a woman in a wheelchair, but crumbles and claims to hear God, who compels her to sing and dance instead -- are ultimately shown to be fictions, comfortable ones many in need come to depend on. It's why her disappearance causes such a stir, only for them to compel resentful rivals to vie for her now adrift flock; they slander Sister Aimee's motives and methods, wanting to change the narrative. Yet this dizzying story, which is based on true events ("5% truth," we're told cheekily at the start) is never quite as playful as it deserves to be. Except, of course, in the aforementioned musical number which is plain divine and suggests the kind of film Sister Aimee can be.

As a fascinating curio attempt at borrowing the stylings of turn of the century radio plays, Sister Aimee is an admirable miss. Its thematic concerns --about storytelling and myth-making, about women's hidden power and resilience, about the intersection of fame and faith, about shared Southwest and Mexican history--are all there to be excavated and discussed. But the film's intentionally slapdash tonal shifts -- it goes from witness testimonials about Aimee's disappearance and past history to Wild Wild West-like escapades featuring outlaws on the hunt and later still to all out Broadway-style musical numbers -- keep the narrative rhythm from ever settling into a story one feels invested in.

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Manuel Betancourt