Sister Helen

If Sister Helen Travis were one for sugary sentiment, she might characterize her hardscrabble ministry as a proverbial candle lit in preference to cursing the darkness. But hers is a saltier sensibility, and though her no-nonsense brand of tough love isn't the stuff of greeting cards, it helped build a remarkably successful halfway house for recovering drug...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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If Sister Helen Travis were one for sugary sentiment, she might characterize her hardscrabble ministry as a proverbial candle lit in preference to cursing the darkness. But hers is a saltier sensibility, and though her no-nonsense brand of tough love isn't the stuff of greeting cards, it helped build a remarkably successful halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics without government help or staff beyond Sister Travis herself. Helen Travis became a Benedictine sister in 1986, aged 56, after losing both her sons — one murdered, one to drugs — and her husband, whose death followed a life of two-fisted drinking. No stranger to alcohol, Helen quit cold turkey and, two years later, opened the John Thomas Travis Center in a city-owned building on Harlem's blighted Willis Avenue. Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa's unsentimentally moving portrait of her day-to-day struggle to keep her residents on the straight and narrow chronicles the sisyphian grind of privately financed charity work. It also sidesteps the pitfall of equating good works with saintliness: Sister Helen is compassionate and dedicated, but she's also stubborn, pushy and single-minded, as a sad little interview with her adult daughter, her only surviving child whose needs are clearly secondary to those of the center, makes clear. Heavy-set and motherly looking, Sister Helen knows she looks like a pushover and makes sure she's never taken for one. She meets with parole officers, demands urine tests at the hint of a backslide, negotiates with charitable agencies that supply food and clothing to the indigent and insists that the 21 men who live at her center abide by its rules or leave. "Your past is right behind you," says one, and no one knows that better than Sister Helen. But she won't tolerate any junkie business — the denials, excuses, evasions, blame-laying, promises and pleas for forgiveness that seduce desperate friends and relatives. During the period chronicled by Fruchtman and Cammisa, one of Sister Helen's tenants repeatedly breaks curfew, drinks, then pleads for another chance; another, clean for years, tests positive for heroin in his urine. A third, a former computer programmer who threw away the trappings of an upper middle-class life for crack, talks candidly about his struggle to reconcile what he was with what he's become. The unspoken question that underlies their struggles is whether a facility run by sheer force of personality can survive when that personality is gone; the film ends on a cautiously hopeful note.

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: If Sister Helen Travis were one for sugary sentiment, she might characterize her hardscrabble ministry as a proverbial candle lit in preference to cursing the darkness. But hers is a saltier sensibility, and though her no-nonsense brand of tough love isn't… (more)

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