Film & Television

‘Sister Aimee,’ A Feminist Imagining of a Missing Preacher

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy Semple McPherson, better known as “Sister Aimee,” was born toward the end of the nineteenth century. She became a celebrated healer and Pentecostal evangelist. The first celebrity preacher to use the media to get the good word (and her name) out, she also founded one of the first megachurches. There was a time when she was, to the dismay of rival charismatic preacher Brother Billy Sunday, the second most popular religious figure in America (His Holiness, the Pope, was first). 

One day in 1926, at the height of her popularity, she disappeared. Rumors ran wild as did alleged Sister Aimee sightings by the faithful. Five weeks later, she reappeared, claiming to have been kidnapped and taken to Mexico. Her story was not wholly believable, least of all by the Los Angeles authorities, and Aimee, her mother. and others were to be charged with perjury, criminal conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Then, new evidence surfaced along with cracks in the case of the prosecution. All charges were dropped, but Sister Aimee’s reputation never fully recovered. She nonetheless had a brief career in Hollywood pictures, was active and vocal in various war efforts, and continued preaching until her death, by a presumably accidental overdose of sleeping pills, in 1944.

All of the above is true. 

However, Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s new film Sister Aimee is, by their own admission, 94.5% imagination. What the writing/directing team has done is filled in the mysterious blanks of Aimee’s missing five weeks. The result is a quirky little movie that defies genres in a sometimes delightful, sometimes meandering, but overall interesting way.

Sister Aimee begins after one of the revered reverend’s service/performances. Indeed, her meetings — attracting thousands — seem more show business than worship. She prays, she heals; but she also sings and tap-dances. Worn out, she goes to her dressing room and proceeds to have sex with the radio repairman, Kenneth Ormiston. He explains that he’s really a writer and his dream is to go down to Mexico and uncover stories from the country’s recent revolution. To Aimee, this seems as good an escape as any. She gamely accepts a false passport; “Hello,” she practices, “I’m Dot Ormiston.” And together, she and Kenny load up her car and head south.

Although Aimee has enlisted the help of her assistant, her disappearance becomes headline news. So she and Kenny don’t dare travel by main roads or enter Mexico at a formal border crossing. Instead, they hire a guide named Rey, a capable woman who knows backroads and has her own reasons for wanting to return to Mexico without attracting attention. The three travel through the southwest, camping at night and counting cactus species by day. (There are 83 varieties in Arizona alone.) They have a potentially deadly but rather thrilling encounter with a gang of thugs in the desert and talk their way out of a sticky situation with a sheriff. Meanwhile, Aimee is awed by the grandeur of the landscape and sky; in some ways, for all her sermonizing, she’s encountering God for the first time.

But … she is quickly less than impressed by Kenny.

Her lover’s banal small talk becomes harder and harder to take as the hours and days of travel roll on. Rey, on the other hand, becomes a subject of fascination. Both women have high-stakes secrets, and mutual respect and suggested affection develop. In times of crisis, they communicate without words, and Aimee is soon convinced that Rey is the legendary “hero with no name” who saved Pancho Villa’s life in the Revolución. They soon ditch Kenny (I think the audience is as relieved as Aimee to see the last of him). Rey shares her noble mission with Aimee, who agrees to help her. But it’s Aimee who eventually saves the day. And if I told you it was through a big musical number, you’d have to take my word for it. As I mentioned earlier, Sister Aimee is its own cinematic creature — part comedy, part biopic, part western, part political thriller, and — yes — part musical. The only films I can think of that have a similar flavor are O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Raising Arizona (1987), with maybe a touch of the father-daughter cons in Paper Moon (1973) and the theatrics of Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).

 

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