Pros: Very moving film. Sister Helen doesn't take any crap.
Cons: Swearing might offend some viewers.
I like documentaries, so that's probably why I added the 2002 documentary Sister Helen to my Netflix queue. This film is about an unconventional nun named Sister Helen Travis, who at age 56, joined the Benedictine order after having lost her husband and her two sons respectively to alcoholism and violence on the streets. Her son Tom was stabbed 17 times at age 15. Son John died of a heroin overdose at age 25. Though she started out as a wife and a mother, she had always wanted to be a nun. The mother of three felt led to the convent following her tragic losses. Her daughter wishes her mother were living with her, but understands that Sister Helen has a special mission to help her charges.
Sister Helen has a foul mouth and is a recovering alcoholic. Nevertheless, she has taken on the Lord's work, having opened the John Thomas Travis Center, a halfway house in the Bronx for recovering male drug and alcohol addicts. Early in the film, she growls "When I say 'p!ss', you p!ss." She's very no nonsense, but the love she has for male recovering drug addicts is very evident.
Sister Helen runs her halfway house, which is in a city owned building, on donations and the rent she collects from the men who live with her. As much as she loves her tenants, she has no qualms about giving them the boot if they screw up. They have to pay rent, tell her where they are and when they're coming home, help keep the building tidy, and help get rid of the ever present rats that take up residence.
I got a kick out of listening to Sister Helen's squawk-like fussing at the residents, like she was a caring and benevolent mother. When this film was made, Sister Helen was 69 years old and living with 21 drunks, junkies, cokeheads, and crackheads. She gives them hugs and kisses, job hunting advice, and sage counsel. She also doesn't hesitate to rip them a new one if she thinks they need it. Sister Helen brooks no nonsense, yet still oozes compassion. She doesn't hesitate to kick out the men who don't follow her rules.
For good reason, this film was a winner at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed and written by documentary makers Rebecca Cammissa and Rob Fruchtman, Sister Helen captures the raw spirit of a woman who is driven to make a difference in a population that frequently has no hope. I found this film very moving. It's obvious that Sister Helen loves the men who live in her halfway house and they love her right back... even as she doesn't hesitate to kick them out, cuss them out, insult them, and subject them to random urine tests.
I will warn that Sister Helen is probably not the best movie choice for people who are sensitive to swearing. Sister Helen swears like a sailor and drops the "F" bomb left and right. And yet, despite her foul language, Sister Helen still seems very Christ-like to me. This is a beautiful movie. If you like documentaries and cool little old ladies who make a difference in the world, this film is for you.
Sister Helen is unrated and runs for about 90 minutes.
For more information: http://www.sisterhelen.com/
Sister Helen Travis died in 2000. Her daughter Mary and Mary's friend, Dorothy, are keeping the center going.