This week, I dropped by the After the Hype podcast for their “Back to School Battle” episode to defend Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit against Easy A, Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Dead Poets Society. You can listen here or subscribe on iTunes.

To coordinate with my funny and fascinating friends, I decided to watch BOTH Sister Act films. They hold up surprisingly well.

Director: Emile Ardolino
Writer: Joseph Howard
Key Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Harvey Keitel

In Short
Delores von Cartier, a lounge singer in Reno, accidentally walks in on her married boyfriend and organized crime leader, Vince, after he’s just killed a snitch. She goes to the police, who place her in witness protection in a convent. She and the Mother Superior butt heads, and Delores is placed in charge of rehabilitating their choir. She also gets the nuns outside of their convent walls and into the community. They manage to raise enough money to get a new roof for the church, and the choir’s popularity attracts the attention of the Pope, who declares he will visit when he’s in the US. Unfortunately, Delores is found out by Vince, who comes after her. He kidnaps her and another nun. The police save the nun, but Delores is whisked to Reno to meet her end. The nuns manage to get a helicopter and track down Delores. They create enough of a diversion that the cops can catch Vince and save the day.

As Cinema
This is a delightful piece of 90s fluff with good musical numbers and talented actors that never overstays its welcome. It’s a bizarre combination of actors — where else would you see Harvey Keitel and Maggie Smith going toe-to-toe? That alone makes it worthwhile, but it’s also got a heart of gold and the overall positive vibe makes it a whole lot of fun.

Movie - Sister Act 2

The Horror
Delores starts out the movie boldly deciding to leave a bad relationship. She takes that strength and transfers it to the nuns, reminding them of their original purpose and passion. It’s girl power grown up, and because these women are all nuns, it removes the need for obligatory romantic subplots. Their relationships, largely based on Delores encouraging them to find their voices, are the most important in the story.

This applies to the sequel as well, but the Sister Act movies couldn’t exist today with religion having become so divisive. It’s a very positive portrayal of faith in action, and it’s particularly special that it’s women leading the charge. When the other nuns learn about Delores’s real identity, they do not judge her but instead celebrate her friendship. This level of acceptance is truly beautiful, as is Delores’s acceptance of the nuns’ choice to commit their lives to God and service.

Director: Bill Duke
Writer: James Orr & Jim Cruickshank; Judi Ann Mason
Key Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Lauryn Hill, Kathy Najimy, James Coburn, Ron Johnson

In Short
Delores von Cartier, now a successful Vegas headliner, gets a visit from her nun friends. They’ve started teaching at a San Francisco school that is at risk for closing, and they need Delores’s help to teach the kids and whip it back into shape. Delores goes back under cover as a nun and takes on the school’s music class, transforming the ragtag group of directionless, impoverished teens into a competition-ready choir. If the kids win, there’s a chance the board of directors will not shut down the school. They manage to give an incredible performance, win, and keep their class from being bused to other school districts.

As Cinema
Better musical numbers, more dynamic characters, and more humor make this the rare superior comedy sequel. Lauryn Hill sings, which is always a win, and the plot is a lot more fun than a standard paint-by-numbers mob story. Although the nuns themselves are underutilized, they still manage to bring pizazz to their limited roles.

SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT, Lauryn Hill, 1993 Buena Vista Pictures/
The Horror
This movie, even more than its predecessor, is about women taking charge. Mr. Crisp and the Franciscan brothers are bent on closing the school, and they never bother to consult the nuns. When Delores manages to outsmart Mr. Crisp before the board of directors at the end, he literally says “That woman!” as though doubly insulted by the fact that he was not only defeated, by but someone he views as beneath him.

Delores once again uses her inner strength to inspire others, this time a group of kids who have been told their lives are already at a dead-end. Having come from the same neighborhood, she knows this is not the case, and she inspires them not through rousing speeches about other people, but by showing them their own strengths. The students, a diverse group of girls and boys, come together and support each other — a rarity in a high school film. This movie does not waste time on romance, instead focusing on student friendships that are strong regardless of gender. It’s a valuable lesson that we rarely get to see in cinema — people as equals from the outset. For a movie about class and somewhat about race, it never slips into savior tropes — doubly impressive when you consider that, by way of nuns, an actual savior is involved. I love the normalcy of this film. Even over twenty years later, it feels like a rare achievement.

It’s easy to write off these movies as easy feel good cash grabs in a time when Whoopi Goldberg was hugely popular. But, even beyond the catchy musical numbers and glorious Maggie Smith side-eye, there’s a lot going on that is unique, even two decades later. It’s fun to see a smart, strong woman use her area of expertise to repeatedly improve the lives of other women, especially when they come from two different worlds.

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