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Sundance: Passing

In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about race relations in 1920s New York with her film Passing. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who ventures into the city, passing as white as she runs errands and enjoys tea time at a fancy hotel. At home she lives a comfortable life with her black husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two children. One day she reunites with an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white however lives more boldly and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about Clare’s background. Clare is intrigued by Irene’s life in the black community and ventures into the world she left behind. As Clare spends less time passing, she and Irene develop an intense queer connection that threatens to destroy their marriages and possibly their relationship.

Passing is devastatingly beautiful. The film was shot in black-and-white which speaks to the binary set by culture but also makes us think about these constructs are arbitrary. The cinematography is stunning. For those who love the era, there are plenty of visual splendors to take in. The actresses wear gorgeous period appropriate costumes. (I secretly wanted to steal all of Tessa Thompson’s cloche hats).

Thompson and Negga are brilliant as Irene and Clare. Their movements are gentle and methodical; almost like a choreographed dance. Andre Holland delivers a powerful performance as the troubled Brian. The movie is less about passing as it is about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, queer identity and the segregation of white and black communities. Rebecca Hall, who is mixed race  and has some African-American heritage on her mother’s side, offers viewers a stunning film with plenty of food for thought.

Passing premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Update: Passing will screen in select theaters starting October 27th and will stream on Netflix November 10th.

SXSW: Sister Aimee

On May 18, 1926, celebrity evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared. Presumed drowned in Ocean Park Beach, Santa Monica, the news of her disappearance caused a national frenzy. Just as her devoted followers were ready to mourn her death, she resurfaced over a month later claiming that a woman named Mexicali Rose and a man named Steve kidnapped her and held her hostage. When she returned, the story of her escape raised some eyebrows and while Sister Aimee stuck to her story there were many who didn’t believe her tale. A case was brought against her in court but eventually dropped. What exactly did happen to Sister Aimee?

This story is 5-1/2% truth… the rest is imagination.

Written and directed by Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, Sister Aimee is reimagines the events that happened during her disappearance. Based on truth, the film is primarily fantasy that blends elements of a period piece, a Western, a road trip movie, an LGBT love story and even features a climactic musical number. Anna Margaret Hollyman stars as Sister Aimee. Frustrated with the trappings of fame, she decides to fake her own death and runaway with her love Kenny/Steve (Michael Mosley). The two go undercover and travel to Mexico to start a new life together. Kenny hires Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a tough-as-nails Mexican woman who serves as their bodyguard and guide on the treacherous journey ahead. Along the way, the trio meet a variety of nefarious characters. Juxtaposed with the road trip scenes, is the investigation into Sister Aimee’s disappearance and the affect on her religious following. Aimee and Rey eventually get arrested and must plot their escape. 

If you’re looking for a Aimee Semple McPherson biopic, this is not it. Instead of a period piece about a fraudulent evangelist, I got a lesbian road trip movie instead. And let me tell you I was very happy with this. I attended the SXSW premiere of the film, settled into my seat, had a couple of mojitos and went along for the ride. Sister Aimee is my favorite film I saw at SXSW. Set in the 1920s, one of my favorite eras, with strong female protagonists and plenty of Latino characters… I was very happy with the end result! 

“As a Latino coming into a project… a period piece, it’s something that rarely happens. Apparently we didn’t exist back then… To have the freedom to not speak in an accent, when you speak in English or Spanish for the character… for me it was pretty revolutionary… [the directors] were very free to let the person be the person and not the stereotype.”

Luis Bordonada

Aimee is a complex character who evolves as the story progresses. Rey is just a bad ass through and through. I developed a massive crush on her. If I’m getting too personal in this review it’s because this film spoke to me on so many level and I can’t separate my emotional reactions enough to write an objective review. I just loved this movie. It does start off a bit slow but picks up. The performances, especially from Paz and Hollyman, were fantastic and Hollyman’s music and dance number is the highlight of the film.

Director-writer duo Schlingmann and Buck are partners in work and life and I wonder how much of their relationship worked its way into the script. In a Q&A after the SXSW screening, Schlingmann said the idea to make the film came to them from Anna Margaret Hollyman, who starred in their short film The Mink Catcher, who was interested in L.A. local history. The filmmakers did research and found the perfect subject for their debut feature-length film. 

For those of you, like me, who are very particular about period detail, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. The finger waves were a little too ironed on for my taste but I thought the costumes and the sets were on point. It was shot on location in Austin, TX and seeing it in that city added something special to the experience.

Sister Aimee is a brilliant road trip movie centered on empowered female characters and reimagines an obscure event from early 20th century American history.

Sister Aimee screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Festival Favorites series.

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