Film & Television

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

Although Sister Aimee follows a fairly linear story (Aimee leaves, Aimee returns), the road trip is interspersed with flashbacks to Aimee’s early days as a gospeler, as well as comical scenes in which two detectives question everyone from her mother and her assistant to her ex-husband and rival revivalist. The mythology surrounding her presence and disappearance is at once a testament to her star status and a silly demonstration of just how far a true believer’s faith can go. The film, which runs under 90 minutes, is entertaining, but the ending is a bit anticlimactic. It feels as if there should be a bigger bang, or at least a more satisfying resolution after all our heroines go through.

What the movie does have in spades is a truly marvelous cast. Anna Margaret Hollyman gives her all as Aimee, as fascinating to watch in repose as she is when she’s singing and dancing her heart out for her congregation. She’s well matched by the striking Andrea Suarez Paz, whose Rey stays balanced between the pragmatic and the heroic. Michael Mosley is a believable bore as Kenny. And, Blake DeLong and John Merriman are self-important as the detectives trying to solve the mystery of Aimee’s disappearance. Julie White and Lee Eddy are memorable in smaller parts as Aimee’s mother and assistant. These are all working actors with, in most cases, years of credits. But they aren’t movie stars, per se. The fact that they look and act like real people — even in some rather extreme and/or absurd circumstances — adds to the Sister Aimee experience.

Sister Aimee premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where Buck and Schlingmann were nominated for the NEXT Innovator Award. Women in Hollywood interviewed them about the film and what attracted them to the project.

“Looking at Aimee’s life and her disappearance,” they explained, “we felt there was a chance for an exciting, improbable, complex telling of a powerful woman’s decision to leave behind the thing that gave her that power. There was also a chance to make a film with an Old Hollywood flair and mash it up with thoroughly modern themes and characters.”

As they describe it, they took a Field of Dreams — “If you build it, they will come”— approach to getting the film produced, working through every aspect of the project in detail before taking it to potential backers. As independent filmmakers, they had to strike a balance between their vision and the available budget. As far as achieving their vision is concerned, they are certainly aided by Carlos Valdes-Lora’s gorgeous cinematography, David Pink’s art direction, Graham Reynolds’s score, Katie Ennis’s editing, James Wiley Fowler’s sets, and Juliana Hoffpauir’s costumes.

When asked what advice Buck and Schlingmann have for other female directors, they echo a bit of Aimee and Rey’s independent attitude.

“Find your people. Too often women learn that the way to success is to make other people like them and their work. If that’s the approach, you just find yourself twisted into a pretzel in order to fill some image of what it is that other person likes. Needless to say, don’t twist yourself into a pretzel! Instead, find the people who like you without it.”

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy Semple McPherson certainly found people who liked her (when she returned to Los Angeles after her alleged kidnapping, she was greeted by an estimated 40,000 fans). She sang; she danced; she performed God’s miracles. 

But, in the creative hands of Buck and Schlingmann, she was nobody’s pretzel.



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