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Samantha Buck Marie Schlingmann Sister Aimee Review

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Sister Aimee | Review

Sister Aimee | Review

If You Seek Aimee: Buck & Schlingmann Resurrect a Fallen Angel

Samantha Buck Marie Schlingmann Sister Aimee ReviewDirectors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann succeed with one overarching point in their indie-ensconced portrait of the infamous Sister Aimee Semple McPherson in Sister Aimee, and it’s more to do with the systematic erasure of women’s stories, accomplishments and history than their zeitgeist centerpiece subject.

Christianity has been far from a friend to the ‘second sex,’ and look no further than the maligned narrative of Mary Magdalene or Eve’s original sin to witness the disparagement of women through the annals of oral tradition and the eventual ‘good book,’ continually misinterpreted to serve the needs of the proletariat. Canadian American McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist who became a media celebrity in the 1920s through the 1930s, utilizing radio to recruit her staggering following, surpassing the legions amassed by her male contemporaries. Hers is really a story of how media was used as a propaganda tool, both for her benefit and against it, and are part and parcel of her journey, which became irreparably defined by an incident in 1926, when she disappeared swimming in Venice Beach only to resurface five weeks later in Mexico, claiming she’d been kidnapped and then faced with accusations of fabrication to hide an illicit affair with a lover. As Buck and Schlingmann point out, only five and half percent of this rendition is true, but how it attempts to fills in those intriguing gaps tends to undersell the strangeness of this cult figure.

In May of 1926, Sister Aimee McPherson (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is the country’s most publicized and sought-after Pentecostal evangelist, second only in popularity to the Pope. But she disappears during a swim one day, leading to a media frenzy suggesting her death. Instead, Aimee dons a new identity and heads to Mexico with her pseudo-journalist new beau Kenny (Michael Mosley), eventually assisted by their guide Rey (Andrea Suárez Paz), a woman with secrets of her own. Eventually, Aimee is unable to continue with the charade of her faked death and a drastic journey through Mexico forces her home.

A more volatile and pleasantly melodramatic portrayal of this media incident arrived in the form of a made-for-television film in 1976, The Disappearance of Sister Aimee, directed by Anthony Harvey and starring Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis, the latter playing the evangelist’s harridan of a mother. The drama which happened on the set of this production (lightly touched upon in Ryan Murphy’s “Feud,” 2017) holds its own morbid appeal. However, the casting of the oft-humorless, endlessly intense Dunaway as Aimee lent the production of McPherson’s story an essence of consequence—perhaps because it’s easier to believe a woman like Aimee McPherson would likely have had the same inflated sense of herself and her craft as Dunaway, a woman whose career became similarly derailed and demeaned due to media perspicacity. Likewise, both Agnes Moorehead in 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen? and Jean Simmons in the Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry (1960) are excellent simulations of McPherson.

Anna Margaret Hollyman is the selling point of Sister Aimee, an actress whose body of work often reflects sarcastic, world-weary women of intellect often on the sidelines of another protagonist (a refreshing lead showcase of her abilities is 2013’s White Reindeer from Zach Clark, however). As McPherson, Hollyman matches the tone of the production, which is rife with a self-awareness that does little to reflect the attitudes and passions of these people during these times. McPherson’s peers and loved ones are interviewed by a sandwich munching investigator, but nearly all are caricatures of carpers and critics (think the constant communal interruptions in the first season of “Big Little Lies,” 2017). Even Julie White as her mother (a character whose impact is underutilized) and Macon Blair as an ex-husband are a bit woebegone.

Since we get just a scant glimpse of McPherson, her desires and attitudes before she absconds with Michael Mosley’s Jack Reed-obsessed Kenny, one would have wished to see just what it is about such a magnetic personality who could pull McPherson out of her orbit, but such energies never transpire. Buck and Schlingmann instead focus on her relationship to Paz’s Rey, their Mexican guide who has several notable historical secrets of her own, erased by the trenchant heteropatriarchal traditions of men claiming deeds and attributes not their own. It’s an interesting chemistry between these two characters (including a brief, vibrant moment of bloodshed which generates a spark of energy much of the film is missing), and recalls the troubled, potentially latently homosexual desire thwarted between the two leads in Henry James’ classic The Bostonians. At the end of the day, a flight of fancy in a Mexican prison represents this presentation’s climax of the McPherson saga, but Sister Aimee cuts this recuperation short at the knees and sidesteps the dangerousness of McPherson’s accomplishments as a brainwasher of the masses by instead highlighting an arguable moment of agency from a woman of substance.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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