SXSW 2019: SISTER AIMEE Is a Rollicking Feminist Retelling of History

Writer/directors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann provide an alternate take on a forgotten celebrity

Aimee Semple McPherson was such a recognizable figure in the ’20s that she served as part of the basis for Barbara Stanwyck’s character in the 1931 drama The Miracle Woman. Semple McPherson was an evangelist who inspired crowds through her radio show and raked in money through donations to her religious organization. She disappeared for a short time in 1926, at the height of her popularity and media scrutiny. This period of weeks is fictionalized by Brooklyn filmmakers (and SXSW alums) Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann in their work Sister Aimee, which premiered at Sundance and played at SXSW over the weekend.

The writer-director duo said during the SXSW Q&A that actress Anna Margaret Hollyman (Sleeping with Other People, The Mink Catcher) suggested the story idea. In their film, Hollyman plays the faith healer who feels overextended and takes up with married writer Steve (Michael Mosley, Pan Am, Ozark). The couple make a run for Mexico, rambling through the Southwest with guide Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a mysterious figure who intrigues both Aimee and Steve.

Sister Aimee grows into itself, increasing in depth and unexpectedness as we follow the trio’s journey. During their trip, scenes of the police investigation into the preacher’s disappearance are interspersed, serving as comic relief and offering further background into who Aimee is and what led to her calling as a Pentecostal leader. A number of Austin artists appear outfitted in period garb — the costuming is worth mention, as the quality of the outfits are impressive for an indie film — as figures from Aimee’s past and the detectives doing the questioning (John Merriman and Blake Delong).

Hollyman gives Aimee her own sense of mystery and stuns the audience with the last act’s miraculous musical number, written by Austin stalwart/composer Graham Reynolds. For me, the standout of the work is Paz as Rey. There’s a theme here of telling a story and claiming it as one’s own, which especially reverberates in this year or so when more women’s voices are being heard instead of silenced. The script written by Schlingmann and Buck gives Rey a haunting backstory and Paz plays her with a quiet fierceness. (An important sidenote: Luis Bordonada, who appears as a Mexican policeman, commented at the Q&A on the dearth of opportunity for Latinx actors in period films, how grateful he was for the representation allowed in Sister Aimee and that the directors didn’t require the Latinx performers to speak accented English).

There is a sharp wit to Sister Aimee and a bittersweet humor, yet a hopeful conclusion. The film defies genre in the best possible way, taking you on a road trip you won’t soon forget.

Cast and crew participate in a Q & A after the SXSW world premiere. Photo by Rod Machen.

Sister Aimee screens again at SXSW: Mon., March 11, 9:30pm at ZACH, and Sat., March 16, 11am at AFS Cinema.

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