'Duty Free': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

Duty Free
Courtesy of Joey Dwyer/Duty Free Film
A son's warm, socially relevant love letter to his mom.

A journalist and his 75-year-old mother explore ageism and bucket lists in Sian-Pierre Regis' personal documentary.

Rebecca Danigelis was a 75-year-old housekeeping supervisor at a hotel when she was fired. She had $600 in savings and had cashed in her 401K to send her younger son, Sian-Pierre Regis, to college. She feels "diminished" without a job, we see her tearfully and bitterly tell her son. Regis, then a 32-year old television journalist specializing in pop culture, moves from New York to Boston to help his mother, and begins the recordings that form this documentary. Duty Free is warm, personal, beautifully structured and socially relevant as it creates a vivid portrait of its real-life heroine and the ageism she encounters. Smoothly edited into a swift 71 minutes, the film rarely goes beneath the surface of its issues, but that surface is smart and, taking its cues from Rebecca, refreshingly unsentimental.

She is not a stereotypical little old granny, but a vibrant woman who puts her best face on for the world, with makeup and blond hair pinned up on her head. She doesn't pretend that she's still young, but she is perfectly capable of working. As we witness her son teach her how to apply for jobs online, though, she is realistic about the fact that no employer is likely to choose the 75-year-old.

Regis is her constant companion onscreen, but one of his best decisions as director was to realize that the film is not about him. He lets Rebecca's personality shine through, even as his voiceover deftly works in facts about her life. Born in Liverpool, she raised her two sons in Boston as a single mother. Regis' older brother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and as an adult still relies on his mother's emotional and financial help, making the stress of her unemployment even worse.

The narrative follows Rebecca for three and a half years, taking a couple of major turns. The first comes when she is depressed about her job prospects, and Sian-Pierre asks her to make a bucket list that they'll fulfill together. Her eclectic choices include "Milk a cow," "Take a hip-hop lesson" and, enigmatically at first, "Reconnect with Joanne."

Just as Regis puts his journalistic skills to good use in structuring the film, at that point he uses his media savvy to finance the bucket-list adventures and get the documentary off the ground. As he transparently reveals in the film, he uses a Kickstarter campaign to subsidize their travels. Eventually the trips generate some feature stories. The money helps in another way. As the film goes on, it becomes technically more sophisticated, with Regis' early, haphazard iPhone video giving way to scenes shot with professional digital cameras.

At the point where the cow-milking and hip-hop lessons, gleeful though they are, risk becoming  gimmicky, Regis delivers the documentary's deepest and most affecting section. Joanne turns out to be Regis' half-sister, Rebecca's daughter from her first marriage. Regis allows his mother to tell the story herself, creating an empathetic connection between her and the viewer. Divorced, living in Detroit without money or family nearby, she needed surgery because, as she says without further explanation, she'd found two lumps in her breast. She sent her small daughter to England to live with her sister, where she remained even after Rebecca got well. At the time of filming, she hadn't seen Joanne for a decade.

We follow Regis and his mother as they travel to the U.K. and are greeted warmly by Joanne and her own daughter. But the film doesn't ignore their emotional scars. Regis interviews the two women separately. Joanne, with raw honesty, says that she longed to be with her parents even though her aunt's family was good to her. She was left with a lifelong sense of insecurity. He asks his mother why she didn't she take Joanne back after she'd recovered from her illness. Rebecca defensively says that Joanne seemed happy in England and was well taken care of.

Throughout the documentary, Rebecca is not introspective. We hear only passing references to the most trying moments of her life. When she was pregnant with Sian-Pierre, she discovered that her two sons' father had another family he'd never told her about. She barely mentions being the white mother of two biracial children, beyond dismissing a condescending so-called friend who said that she'd still talk to Rebecca even after she gave birth to her Black baby. The film doesn't illuminate those challenges, but it does capture the steeliness that obviously helped her get through them.

The film takes another brief turn after Rebecca's bucket-list travels gather publicity, including a 2017 feature on CBS Sunday Morning. Other people in her age group contact her with stories of disappointment and frustration at being let go or passed over for work. Rebecca herself finds a part-time job in housekeeping at a Hilton Hotel in New York. The film ends there, pre-COVID. It doesn't include the latest news, that she was furloughed because of the pandemic and now shares an apartment with Sian-Pierre. Nonetheless, she remains an inspiring, determined figure, and Duty Free a lovely, smartly crafted, informative tribute to her and so many in her jobless situation.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: Duty Free Films
Cast: Rebecca Danigelis, Sian-Pierre Regis
Director: Sian-Pierre Regis
Producers: Meredith Chin, Sian-Pierre Regis
Cinematography: Joey Dwyer
Editor: Mitra Bonshahi, Sara Shaw
Music: Crystal Grooms Mangano
Sales: UTA

71 minutes