AV Club: ‘Sista’ banks on emotive value & Kehinde Bankole’s superb acting

Written, directed and produced by the prolific Biodun Stephen

There’s a popular discuss, that mothers are celebrated multiple days in a year while fathers get a solitary day in June. It’s a conversation that gets rehashed frequently but with different motives, sometimes as a (paternalistic) validation of the invaluable nature of motherhood, or as a way to whine about how society undervalues fathers. In Biodun Stephen’s ‘Sista’, a mother is the sole parent of two children who would likely be the type of people that would send out reverential tweets about their mum also being their dad on Father’s Day.

It’s not that viewers need a mid-budget Nollywood film to know that single parents exist and stretch themselves across roles better suited to two or more people, but ‘Sista’ is guided by a plot with a lived-in quality and that counts heavily in its favour. Taking inspiration from her own life, as the daughter of a single mother, Biodun Stephen delivers a worthwhile affair that aptly banks on emotive value. It’s not a novel approach, she’s helmed affecting films based on family-oriented plots, like ‘Looking for Báàmi’ and ‘Joba’, to warm critical reception.

‘Sista’ is plain from the jump, more in how it feels like you’re watching a familiar story play out rather than it being droningly predictable. In an early scene, we’re introduced to a pair of young lovers debating the impending fate of a premarital pregnancy. Young Victoria (Adedamola Adewale) is on the cusp of finishing her secondary school education, while young Folarin (Chimezie Imo) is about a year into his Bachelor’s degree. Incredibly upset, their families shun them and the pair are forced to a version of domestic life, moving into Folarin’s tiny apartment together and making ends meet through Victoria’s industry and self-sacrifice.

On the eve of their second child being born, Folarin decides to pull a disappearing act, aided by being posted to another state for his post-uni mandatory youth service. About 16 years later, the now-older Victoria (Kehinde Bankole)—now generally referred to as Sista, even by her two children—is single-handedly raising Folarin and Anu, both named after their father, while working as a cleaner across personal homes and corporate offices. The film wastes no time in showing Sista as a diligent worker, evidenced by an early scene where she’s reluctant to go into a house without its resident being around, in order to avoid being accused of stealing.

Just as important, Sista is shown to have a warm relationship with her children, partly influenced by her sole parental presence. “It’s four eyes that born a child but it’s only two that’s nurturing,” she tells her daughter in a cautionary reaction while Anu rolls her eyes and recites along in a manner that suggest it’s the umpteenth time she’s hearing this quip. In the film’s first half, Sista’s hardworking nature is intertwined with her commitment to raising Folarin and Anu to the best of her ability. The children take care of her too, and the established dynamic bridges the gap between past and present. Sista gives the children money to fuel the generator in case of power outage with semi-strict instructions to match, while they provide her with physical relief after a long day’s work and complain that she’s working too much.

Work-wise, Jemima (Tope Olowoniyan) is Sista’s most important ally, helping to get her jobs and lending a very generous hand in a manner that ranges from lunch to giving phones to the Folarin and Anu. Jemima is also the unwitting conduit to Folarin Sr. (Deyemi Okanlawon) making his way back into the lives of Sista and her children. On his return, Folarin Snr has another family, with a new wife and two adolescent kids. Half of the film’s second act and all of the third act depicts the tumultuous process of reconciliation and eventual redemption for the deadbeat father.

In trying to right his past, he pulls in his children’s affections with his deep pockets, he remorsefully pleads with his wife Tiwatope (Bisola Aiyeola) for the chance to be a better man, and he grovels with Sista after her staunch refusal to let him back into the life she’s created for her and her children. ‘Sista’ works these relationship dynamics with a notable level of efficiency. Flashbacks fill in some foundational gaps, while its premium is in the writing of the dialogues and monologues, relying on strong acting performances to translate their emotional weight to viewers.

The film’s compelling height is a monologue where Sista confronts Folarin Snr to let out her vindictive rage at trying to badger his way into the lives of three people he abandoned, in the presence of his wife no less. As her eyes widen and her voice reverberates, Kehinde Bankole wrings out an excellent performance in a scene that’s emblematic of how well she carries the load as the primary character. In definitely one of the best casting moves of the last year in Nollywood, Bankole embodies the character with a poise that’s not just apt for Sista, but also enhances the on-screen value of every other cast member around her. It’s telling that the film’s affecting value drops a level whenever she isn’t in a scene.

Overall, the acting in ‘Sista’ is superb. Deyemi Okanlawon is becoming a savant at playing characters on the perpetrating end of emotional tumult (see: ‘Blood Sisters’) and he does a solid job as Folarin Snr. Adeoluwa Akintoba and Chiamaka Uzokwe deliver eye-holding turns as the children, while Adedamola Adewale and Chimezie Imo do a great job portraying the travails of two young people figuring out the best way to deal with being young people who are also young parents.

Wearing multiple hats as writer, director and producer—similar to those aforementioned titles—Biodun Stephen’s vision is singular, but not without its flaws. Her decision to prioritise economy favours the film as a brisk and easy watch, but there are missing bits of visual nuance, like the little knowledge we have of the relationship between Sista and Jemima, considering that the latter is incredibly fond of the former up to the point of buying phones for Sista’s children. Also, we could’ve used a more than a montage moment of Sista scraping her way through cleaning jobs, not to the point of glorifying suffering but at least for a little more heft.

Some of the other stuff is touch-and-go. The grammar thing teeters on the edge of caricaturing, especially since Sista made it close to finishing up secondary school. Her apartment is quite posh for the income class the film alludes to. Also, the maudlin soundtrack that plays for almost the entire second half could’ve been toned down. Considering how well the plot unfolds, these are critical remarks that pop up from the margins of a film that deserves every minute of its run time.

How you feel about the ending of ‘Sista’ depends the way you reconcile Sista’s initially adamant attitude with her eventually thawed opposition, in the face of a repentant, prodigal father. Regardless, there’s no invalidating the realness of how it all plays out—forgiveness and letting go of the past is a very Nigerian thing in family situations, especially when the man is the erring party. Since art imitates life, it’s fitting to conclude that ‘Sista’ hit the right marks.