Though Sian-Pierre Regis’ love letter to his mother Rebecca touches on some painful sides, the best Mother’s Day gift is a trip to the cinema to see the heartwarming and inspirational, if cryptically titled, documentary duty-free.
For most of his life, Sian-Pierre, an independent journalist in New York, had depended on his mother, who, like mothers, had sacrificed her life working as a housekeeper to give him and his older brother Gabriel every opportunity to live she could offer. Including an education, she could only dream of. Gabriel suffered a breakdown as a teenager and is still semi-dependent due to a mental illness.
Sian-Pierre and Rebecca always assumed she would continue working as housekeeping supervisors. For the past forty years, she has lived in the same Boston apartment on the sixth floor of a YWCA, working as a 24-hour on-call housekeeper in exchange for the apartment and a small wage. Here she raised Gabriel, her son, by a black man and was pregnant with Sian-Pierre when she discovered he had another family, and they separated. When the Y became a luxury hotel ten years ago, Rebecca continued as Housekeeping Supervisor with an impeccable record. Rebecca reminds us it was more than a job; The staff was family.
As the film opens, Rebecca, 75, has started receiving warning letters, and then she was fired for disobedience, with two weeks’ salary and a year to vacate the apartment. Sian-Pierre, 32, decides it’s time for payback. After helping his mother get online to help with her job hunt and seeing her self-esteem dissipate with every rejection and hurdle, he treats her to a wish-list vacation.
This is the plot of duty-free, the odyssey of a devoted mother and her son. It’s not sentimental because, despite tears of frustration and concern for Gabriel’s well-being, there’s no time for self-pity. And Sian-Pierre, while caring, is different from the shabby type. While the film sadly avoids any discussion of the effectiveness of America’s age discrimination laws, it does, to its credit, turn the movie into an age discrimination case study by considering the broader implications of a layoff.
“I feel like my worth is diminished in their eyes, and that’s not a good feeling,” Rebecca tells Sian-Pierre, who became a filmmaker to document his mother’s dilemma. Full of self-confidence, she undresses, only to return to the bad news of another cancellation.
At this point, Sian-Pierre decides his mother needs a break and funds a year for Rebecca to make a bucket list and achieve her dreams.
Though this bucket list feels gimmicky and distracting (humans don’t milk cows anymore, machines do, and yes, seventy-somethings can skydive with an instructor tied to them), it’s the vehicle through which we learn about Rebecca’s strenuous life, about the choices and sacrifices she has made and the regrets that affect her and others.
When Rebecca selects a return to Detroit for her bucket list, we learn that she is young and attractive from Liverpool in the early 1970s, coming to the upbeat, shiny industrial city to promote British tourism (no details on this job). There she meets John and has a daughter, Joanne. But it’s a bad marriage. They get divorced, and she starts working in a hotel (which is run down now). When life isn’t challenging enough, Rebecca discovers she has breast cancer. Rebecca, raised by her older sister Elsie when their mother fell ill, sends Joanne to live in England with Elsie and her family.
One of the things on the bucket list is a reunion with the estranged Joanne and baking a cake with Joanne’s baby daughter, Layla, who she never met. There’s a feeling this trip has opened new doors for Rebecca and her “other family,” which will pay dividends as they plan future visits via Zoom calls. But Sian-Pierre is also touched by this reunion and has some tough questions for Rebecca about leaving Joanne, who has suffered from low self-esteem and rejection.
Though they briefly discuss her experiences as a single mom with black children, the racial issue gets personal when Rebecca learns hip-hop dance. She tells Sian-Pierre that she couldn’t penetrate his skin, but she watched him move as he grew up and wanted to experience it to be closer to him.
Throughout the film, the thread of family runs alongside that of work. During the bucket list year, Sian-Pierre points out they’re celebrating the first Thanksgiving his mom has yet to work on. But Rebecca is already thinking ahead after applying to Princess Cruises as a cruise ship housekeeper.
Rebecca points out that the housekeeping supervisor job has many transferrable skills: time pressure, quality control, inventory control, guest service, technology, and always having a smile on your face. But when young employers see her resume, they picture a quirky old lady with Zimmer glasses and won’t interview her.
Duty-free is not only Rebecca’s journey but also Sian-Pierre’s. He tells us that he couldn’t get his mother a job, but he could tell the world her story, which was more universal than any of them imagined. At 76, Rebecca became an internet sensation, appearing in Forbes to Good Housekeeping publications. It is most rewarding to communicate with their many followers worldwide, who share their experiences of being scrapped while having so much to give.
“I never realized that everyone needs an advocate,” says Sian-Pierre of his mother’s newfound fame. But it works both ways because Sian-Pierre took something from the journey and is now a filmmaker. Rebecca says, “It’s a mother’s job to give all these gifts, but it’s a son’s job to accept them graciously as you walk with them and show the world what you can do.”
Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, mother and son bring us the perfect Mother’s Day gift.