Review: Sister Aimee Is a Surprising Story About Power and Privilege
Three and a half out of five newspaper headlines.
Sister Aimee is, on paper, an unlikely film. A mostly fictionalized biopic about a female evangelist, a period piece, and a queer romance, it puts on quite a show. The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and that opens in limited release today, is a bitingly funny look at women in power, the different kinds of power there are, and how privilege impacts the stories we tell. If you need a fun, original romp, I recommend this wholeheartedly.
Aimee Semple McPherson (played here by Anna Margaret Hollyman) was once the second-most popular evangelical figure in the country, and then she disappeared. Filmmakers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann have crafted a story of what might have happened and why she might have run. In reality, she said she was kidnapped, but what if she had opted to leave her fame behind in favor of something new? That’s the question Buck and Schlingmann are asking as they also question what it means for a woman to have power.
In Buck and Schingmann’s version, Aimee gets swept up in her male lover’s (Michael Mosley) dreams of Mexico and makes a run for the border with him. They hire a guide, Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), who’s got her own story to tell and in whom Aimee finds a kindred spirit. Along the way, Aimee’s desire to get away clashes with her own ambitions. After all, as she’s away, the police are interrogating various individuals from her past about her story, allowing them to put their own spin on her narrative.
This isn’t a straight biopic—the opening card says that the story is only 5.5% true, after all—and so the filmmakers have the chance to queer the narrative by focusing mostly on Aimee and Rey. While we never hear Aimee’s story from her own perspective, the ever-shifting narratives surrounding her from those who knew her best (and worst) represent the conflicting ways in which power can allow others to tell our story. Aimee, ultimately, has to choose between letting others define her narrative and whether she wants to take it back.
Hollyman gives a delightful performance as Aimee, radiating frustration and a genuine softness when she’s with Rey. Suarez Paz is also a phenomenal choice, who gives Rey depth with an understated performance. Even Mosley as Kenny, the personification of white male entitlement, gets a few laughs with his hapless turn. It’s a good ensemble, with plenty of fun side characters, but the core of the film rests on Hollyman and Suarez Paz’s chemistry.
The film is very female gaze-y, both in story and shots. It doesn’t try to sexualize either Aimee or Rey, despite the former getting a sex scene towards the beginning, and it prioritizes their journeys both individually and together. They’re presented as fully realized women with dreams and stories that go beyond the scope of the film, who make choices that aren’t always heroic but always advance their own narratives.
While the film isn’t always the most polished, it’s refreshing to see women queering the narrative of other women. While a straight (pun intended) biopic about Aimee would be just as fascinating, the fictionalized story is a lot of fun, and I’m always here for a story that actively tries to shake up expectations. Above all else, it makes me excited to see what the filmmakers do next. Count me in as being along for the ride.
(image: Obscured Pictures)
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