You can tell they were friends once, even if it was another lifetime ago: There’s something about the way the parole officer, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), and the new ex-con in her office, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), interact with each other—wary, passive-aggressively probing, a little bitter—that suggests a storied history together before their respective roads diverged. Neither time nor life in inner-city Los Angeles has been kind to them, though for Bernice, things are about to get worse. Her son, an Iraq veteran, has gone missing. Severed fingers show up via messenger. All signs point South of the Border, so these two middle-aged women—with a broken-down, disgraced former cop (Edward James Olmos) in tow—head down to Mexico, looking for answers.
A lefty prole-poet and an Amerindie OG of the highest order, writer-director John Sayles has championed social underdogs and blue-collar heroes since Day One. He hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to creating fleshed-out characters fighting for dignity and scraping to get by—both Hamilton and Ross have a field day with this duo—even if, for once, you can feel the limitations of operating below a certain production-value threshold. (It’s odd to use chintzy to describe a Sayles film, but given some of the awkward transitional dissolves and visual flatness here, there’s no other word for it.) The leads’ chemistry and a wonderful pulp weariness that feels straight out of, say, George Pelecanos’s novels makes up for a lot, yet despite the class-conscious genre pleasures, independent cinema’s foremost Zinn master feels slightly off his game.
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