'Sister Aimee': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A shallow portrayal of a complex figure.

A preacher flees L.A. for Mexico in this historical dramedy from writing-directing duo Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann.

Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the first successful American televangelists whose pioneering use of radio brought her a wide following in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Married writing and directing team Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann bring Aimee’s story to the big screen with a fictional account of why the Pentecostal preacher known as Sister Aimee mysteriously disappeared in 1926 at the height of her fame. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival (Next section) and also screened at the SXSW Film Festival this year.

Burnt out on her busy life as a charismatic healer and saver of souls, Sister Aimee (Anna Margaret Hollyman) escapes to Mexico with her new beau Kenny (Michael Mosley), a writer eager to chronicle the country post-revolution. To explain her sudden disappearance to the public, Sister Aimee fakes her own death. But this leads to a police investigation of foul play that fans the flames of her celebrity even more. Sister Aimee and Kenny link up with a seasoned guide named Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz) who drives them south in Aimee’s expensive coach as they face a variety of obstacles along the way.

Shot mostly in Texas and New Mexico, Sister Aimee is a period piece that collages together multiple genres: comedy, crime drama, musical, Western and documentary. Although ambitious, the pic’s inability to nail its tone confuses more than it entertains. Buck and Schlingmann have ideas, but they just don’t add up to something impactful here.

The film was made on an indie budget, but the production design and costuming are able to convincingly set a stage that looks like the prohibition era in the American West. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to be convinced, and they make a number of choices that step on the movie’s strong visuals.

The musical score is a hackneyed imitation of old Westerns that overpowers the action of the scenes. Hollyman works adeptly with what she’s given, but the script flattens Sister Aimee instead of revealing her. By the end of the film the only thing we know for sure is that Sister Aimee is a classic narcissist and the worst archetype of an L.A. actor. Although the movie wants us to root for her and believe in her powers, without providing the necessary character development, it’s clear that being a minister is just an act for Sister Aimee, not a genuine calling. She comes off as a cautionary tale about the dangers of false prophets rather than a hero.

The real Sister Aimee, however, is more interesting and complicated than Buck and Schlingmann’s version, which the opening titles rightly say is “95 percent imagination.” According to Gary Krist’s history of Los Angeles, The Mirage Factory, Sister Aimee’s star rose during a pivotal moment in the city's history. From 1900 to 1930, L.A. transformed from a farm town of 100,000 to a metropolis with a population of more than 1 million. 

“William Mulholland and D.W. Griffith had already seen to the city’s physical, economic and artistic requirements; Now Aimee Semple McPherson was here to minister to its spiritual needs,” writes Krist.

Whether or not you believe in what she preached, Krist’s Sister Aimee was at least sincere in her beliefs. The movie has such an inconsistent tone that it ends up satirizing its protagonist rather than humanizing her.

The cinematography from newcomer Carlos Valdes-Lora is undoubtedly the film’s best element. For example, there’s a picturesque backshot of Aimee standing in the desert with big sky overhead that evokes a woman’s authentic search for God. Aimee stands in the right third of the frame peering silently at the vast landscape. It’s as if it’s finally dawned on her that she’s just one person in a big universe, but once the forced dialogue breaks the silence, it wipes out the power of Valdes-Lora’s image.

Women’s self-actualization stories have had some popularity over the last 10 years. Think of the successful memoirs that led to the film adaptations Wild (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée) and Eat, Pray, Love (directed by Ryan Murphy). Some critics of the latter memoir saw its author, Elizabeth Gilbert, not as a hero but as just the latest embodiment of the old colonial mindset that glorifies white people who seek to extract value from “exotic” places.

This is precisely what Sister Aimee does in Mexico with her guide and eventual girl crush Rey, a woman with expert weaponry skills who fought alongside Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. Although written as a supporting role, Suarez Paz’s portrayal of Rey adds depth to the story and ultimately carries the film. So much so that you wish the movie had been about her.

Production companies: Kill Claudio, Santa Rita Film Co.
Cast: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Michael Mosley, Andrea Suarez Paz
Writer-directors: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann
Producers: Bettina Barrow, David Hartstein, Katherine Harper
Executive producers: Lily Rabe,
Lee Stobby,
Lola Lott, Greg McCabe,
Vicky Wight, Matt Ballesteros, Ty Roberts, Houston Hill Billy, Rozanne Rosenthal, Patrick J. Starley, KC Weiner, Peter J. Fluor, John Robison
Director of photography: Carlos Valdes-Lora
Music: Graham Reynolds
Costume designer: Juliana Hoffpauir
Editor: Katie Ennis
Production designer: Jonathan Rudak
Sales: Deborah McIntosh, Endeavor Content

87 minutes.