‘Sister Aimee: A retelling the Evangelist’s sensationalized kidnapping

*This review contains spoilers for Sister Aimee!

Sister Aimee, directed by married duo Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, is a dramatization of real life evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s supposed kidnapping scandal. Overwhelmed by success and its daunting expectations, Aimee and her lover chase his dreams of the Mexican border — and stumbles upon an adventure of her own.

Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri

Sister Aimee starts slowly, but surely becomes a better tale — though it takes quite some time to get there. The film starts out with a display of Aimee’s (Anna Margaret Hollyman) “healing powers” that parodies real life Aimee McPherson’s faith healing; on stage with exaggerated speech, the “divine intervention” plays out like a performance. However, the famed evangelist seems to be losing her touch, and after the curtain call Aimee’s revealed to be a rather promiscuous woman opposite of her pure, heavenly image. She takes on a lover, Kenny (Michael Mosely), a writer who fascinates her with his musings on Mexico. Kenny tells Aimee about “The Boy with No Name”, a pivotal character who saved revolutionary Pancho Villa from execution. 

Captured by the promise of adventure and romance, and afraid of being painted as a ruse, Aimee decides to elope with Kenny. They stage a fake drowning so Aimee can escape her stressful life, and are introduced to a woman named “Rey” (Andrea Suarez Paz), who serves as their guide to the Mexican border. Enigmatic, hardened, and cunning, Rey is more than what meets the eye, but she’s not their only trouble. Back in Los Angeles, Aimee’s assistant Sister Semple (Amy Hargreaves) claims that Aimee “evaporated” into thin air and her scandals are sensationalized. Will the trio be able to make it to Mexico, and what exactly is Rey hiding? 

Admittedly, I became worried when a Mexican woman was introduced, expecting a “white savior” story or barbaric portrayal of brown people. Film is slowly opening its doors to women filmmakers, but western film is still a very white territory. White women are active perpetrators to white supremacy and complicit in racism, so my skeptical approach isn’t unfounded. However Rey (real name Rosa) ended up being the real star of Sister Aimee. Her character had an interesting backstory with incredible potential that could have been more fleshed out, but to my relief, Rosa was a nuanced character that eventually kicked the white man to the side as the deuteragonist. 

Kenny tells Aimee of a legend that sparked his interest in Mexico to begin with, about a revolutionary who aided great hero Pancho Villa by slitting the throats of men who had backed him into a corner. However, the savior’s identity is unknown, and they are simply known as “The Boy with No Name”. One night, the travelers meet a few vandals, and one claims to be this legend — Rosa seems perturbed, which only Aimee notices, and her identity as Pancho Villa’s savior is revealed when the wanderers attempt a dangerous liaison.

After a flurry of ambitious adventures, the newfound dynamic duo of Aimee and Rosa take a detour in a diner, and Aimee asks Rosa why she’s humbly decided to mask her existence. The conversation sparks the most impactful moment of the movie. Rosa causes a scene and reveals her identity, unveiling the climactic yet unsurprising plot twist  people only laugh and dismiss her for being a woman. Women, time and time again, are innovators, problem solvers, leaders — but for most of history have been thought of as the lesser sex. It’s not that the boy has no name, but that no one will listen to her. Men would rather believe in a myth than admit that a woman is capable of an incredulous feat.

If white women are silenced, then women of color (especially black and brown women) are deafened. Currently, there are so many admirable youths paving protest; most of us are probably familiar with the climate change activist Greta Thunberg. There’s no doubt that Thunberg deserves her recognition and fame as an inspiring child leader, but we must also remember the other girls fighting in our own continent. Autumn Peltier, an indigenous advocate for water rights and Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, a leader in the Youth Climate Strike, are only two names in a plethora of girls making change. In fact, it’s telling that we’ve imported another white face from a European country, while leaders in our own country fight everyday. Watching this scene in Sister Aimee felt so relevant in regards to today’s mainstream media, which underreports people of color, that I really had to point this out.

Either way, Suarez is the star of the show, and the movie probably would have been fundamentally more interesting if it was centered around her character but Rosa is unfortunately fictional. Nonetheless, Aimee as a real person was interesting in her own right, an essential founder of Pentecostalism. Sister Aimee portrayed Aimee as a narcissistic entertainer, when her real life counterpart was more nuanced and firmly believed in her healing powers, but she wasn’t entirely unlikable. For a dramedy, this Aimee was fitting as a protagonist, though it ended up satirizing her more than humanizing her. 

Sister Aimee was made on an indie budget, but still had some spunk with roaring 20’s visuals and cool costume design. It’s a little slow, and takes a lot to get into, but the latter half of the movie ended up being a surprising hit. An explicit romantic scene between two female leads is also a plus; Aimee and Rosa’s relationship gradually became more meaningful, and the buildup was still there, but I still had doubts, so seeing a kiss was cathartic. The film as a whole is a B, if pushing it, but it definitely had its delights. 

© Beatrice Viri FF2 Media 10/08/2019

Does Sister Aimee pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes!

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