Just in time for Mother’s Day comes this absolute heartwarmer from the American journalist turned documentary maker Sian-Pierre Regis, about ageism, pensioner poverty and the gig economy, but mostly about his brilliant, wonderful mother. It begins in Boston, when Liverpool-born Rebecca Danigelis is suddenly fired from her live-in housekeeping manager job at a fancy hotel, where she has worked for decades. The 75-year-old is handed two weeks’ pay and an eviction notice to vacate the apartment at the top of the hotel, where she raised her two sons as a single mother. Regis, a 32-year-old freelance journalist, begins filming.
His early recordings on iPhone capture his mother’s total despair. She has $600 in the bank, having cashed her savings to put him through college. No one is replying to her job applications. She feels invisible – though she’s anything but, with her platinum white hair pinned into a chic updo and immaculate makeup. As her son says, she’s a woman of “grit, sass and determination”. At her lowest point, he asks her to write a bucket list of things she could never do because she was always working. He raises $60,000 on Kickstarter and together they tick off her list.
At this point, Duty Free begins to feel ever so slightly gimmicky, as the pair set off to “milk a cow” and “skydive in Hawaii”. But Regis teases out the emotional stories behind his mother’s list. When she tells him that she wants to take a hip-hop dance lesson, he’s surprised. But Danigelis explains that, as the white mother of bi-racial sons (Regis’s dad is black), she wants to share the feeling she has seen in him when listening to hip-hop. And he doesn’t go easy on his mother in some of the scenes shot in Liverpool, while visiting her daughter from her first marriage, who was raised by her sister. It makes for one or two emotionally difficult scenes.
But the overwhelming feeling here is the pure pleasure of watching a seventysomething woman, who has felt invisible and discarded, be seen by so many: interviewed on US daytime TV; her story going viral and acquiring tens of thousands of adoring fans on Instagram; having the time of her life.