The humanist virtues of John Sayles are readily apparent in the first scenes of Go for Sisters, his low-key border-crossing road trip mystery. Straight off, the writer-director-novelist treats us to two knotty, compelling monologues, a pair of showstoppers in the first 10 minutes, each delivered by characters you don't see in the movies that often: grown women forced to explain how they came to violate their parole. Both stories seem perfectly reasonable, as they're told. These women live in rough parts of L.A., so of course they're sometimes going to be in bars where drugs are sold. Their lives are entwined with folks not on the straight-and-narrow, so of course they sometimes have to step into a party where there are dealers everywhere.
Their parole officer is a seen-it-all type played by LisaGay Hamilton with just a hint of warm empathy within her official indifference. One story she deems "bullshit;" the other — well, that's where the movie starts. The officer's adult son has gone missing, and the second parolee — a trying-to-go-straight addict (Yolonda Ross) — happens to be an old friend from high school with connections to the drug-and-crime circles that lately had absorbed the son. Might Fontayne, the parolee, make contact on behalf of Bernice, the officer?
Sayles teases some irony out of his premise — a parole officer requesting a violator get back in touch with criminal associates — and the women's investigation affords him every chance to indulge his interest in the people who make cities and syndicates and governments run, and his love of setting those people against each other and then letting them talk. He has a Studs Terkel urge, a zeal to get everyday people's best stories into the record — his superb first novel, Union Dues, from 1977, peaks with a coal-country runaway telling a drunken gaggle of Village radicals the story of a 1920 Virginia miners' strike, a monologue so thrilling that Sayles went on to build his breakthrough film Matewan out of it.
After that opening, unfortunately, Go for Sisters' talk comes in quicker scraps. Sayles gives us interrogations of underworld figures, a sobering visit to a Narcotics Anonymous support group, and many scenes of the two women hashing over their present troubles and their troubled past. (The title comes from what people used to say about their resemblance when they were teenagers: They could "go for sisters.") Much of this getting-to-know-you is welcome, but Sayles' energy often seems more invested in it than in the mystery of Bernice's son. The plot saps along.
Eventually, the clues lead to Tijuana and a bad-news gang of Chinese coyotes — the smugglers who sneak people into the U.S. The women, by this point, have hired an ex-cop played by Edward James Olmos, who seems to have spent the years since Battlestar Galactica steeping in whatever juices give him his kick of sour flavor. Now a rumpled, crabby, hilarious mound, he has achieved peak-level Olmos.
"This isn't Mexico," he warns his partners. "This is like a theme park for bad behavior." In such a place the story must ramp up, and it does, building to the kind of unsurprising yet satisfying conclusion Sayles has avoided in films like City of Hope or Limbo. It's not bad, but it feels rote, as if the film's events are just an excuse for us to hang with the film's people. As for the people, they're well written and performed, but too wearied by their lives to invest much of themselves in connecting with each other — or to us.