Aimee Semple McPherson, or Sister Aimee as she was known to her fans and followers, was one of the most popular and influential figures in America in the 1920s and 30s, yet she’s nearly been forgotten. An extremely popular Evangelist preacher, she captured the nation’s attention through packed sermons featuring costumes, music, and faith healing, utilizing the radio to get her message heard across the country. Co-directors and writers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s film Sister Aimee brings the figure back to life, introducing her to an all new generation; though it’s very clear we’re getting Buck, Schlingmann, and actress Anna Margaret Hollyman‘s version of her. In this case, she’s a sharp tongued, alluring, and frustrated entertainer who goes on the run with her lover after faking her own death.
This film isn’t concerned with fact or accuracy here, as it states upfront. It seems the primary goal here by all involved was simply to tell an entertaining story. That’s fitting as the movie itself seems so interested in storytelling and who does and doesn’t get to tell and take credit for theirs.
As a preacher, Aimee has spent her career telling people stories of the gospel in the most outlandish manner she can, and when we meet her she’s grown sick of it. Enter Kenny (Michael Mosley), a new employee and lover who seduces her with his tales of Mexico and the revolutionary fighters there. He’s never been himself, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him or Aimee, and soon they’re both on a journey to Mexico City for him to find more inspiration for his writing and to allow her an escape. To help them make it across the border they recruit Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a mysterious, strong, and fascinating Mexican woman with stories of her own to drive them, avoiding police in the process.
Above all else this really is a road movie, and after a rough and rushed start, when the three leads embark on their trip together it begins to truly shine (at least when it’s not abruptly interrupted by flashbacks and scenes of the missing person investigation back home). Terrific little comedic moments occur between the trio in the tiny little car they bounce around along dirt roads and in the tent they share nightly. Tensions grow and new things are revealed about all.
The film also fortunately chooses to change the traditional dynamic, as the key relationship begins to fade from the unoriginal and unexceptional Kenny and Aimee to Rey and Aimee. The two women ultimately grow to understand and respect one another and an attraction also starts to form.
Their relationship is the film’s most exciting development, and the actresses’ chemistry certainly contributes to this front. They circle and size each other up before ultimately softening and sharing some genuinely sweet and sensitive moments as their interactions become increasingly heated. Suarez Paz in particular is one to watch here. She dryly dead pans some of the film’s best jokes and also produces real emotion, frustration, spirit, and depth within her character. It’s hard not to fall for her as well.
The movie ultimately culminates in a splendid musical number that acts as an excellent showcase for Hollyman’s talents and makes you wish the entire film had been quite as campy, joyful, and absurd as this moment was.
Sister Aimee is relatively minor when compared with many of the films playing at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It’s independent in the strongest sense of the word, made with what was clearly a small budget and featuring a cast and crew largely unfamiliar to audiences, even those very tapped into indie cinema. But these reasons are exactly why it’s presence was so welcome, as it’s able to take festival goers by surprise and introduced viewers to a very talented host of individuals. And while this was a bit inconsistent and poorly paced, one can’t help but be excited to see what both Buck and Schlingmann do next and hope that having their film here will bring them recognition and support for even stronger future projects.
by Jennifer Verzuh
Jennifer Verzuh is a writer who’s spent the past year and a half traveling across the US working at film festivals after graduating college, where she studied literature and film production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie & Nashville. You can follow her on Twitter at @20thcenturywmn or letterboxd.