At the age of 75, Rebecca Danigelis suddenly found herself unemployed after spending 55 years in the workforce as a housekeeper. The British immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in the 60s managed to raise two boys on one check. She put her youngest (Sian-Pierre Regis) through college while caring for her oldest son Gabriel who is disabled. When her position was eliminated at a Boston hotel, Rebecca realized that she wouldn’t be able to get by on Social Security. With just $600 in the bank and a limited lease on her hotel apartment, she panicked. Luckily, Sian-Pierre is the kind of son every mother hopes for. As a journalist, he shared her story, started a successful crowdfunding campaign, and used the money raised to fulfill his mom’s bucket list while planning the next chapter of her life.
DUTY FREE (2021)
Documentary. Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis
Filmed over three years, “Duty Free” is perfectly timed to open this Mother’s Day weekend. It’s a lighthearted documentary that only skirts the issue of ageism in the workplace to center on Sian-Pierre’s love for his mother and his mission to pay her back for all the sacrifices she made for her family. He takes a hiatus from his New York job and relocates to Boston so he can help his mother get back on her feet while documenting their journey for his debut feature.
The story begins with Rebecca looking sharp in her business suit as she inspects a room at the Boston hotel where she holds the Housekeeping Supervisor position. “Housekeeping is the heart of the hotel” she comments in voiceover narration, explaining it’s a hard but rewarding job, “You take things that look like nothing and make them look great.” You can tell Rebecca takes pride in her work as she points out her duties which include keeping a smile on your face at all times.
The first sign of trouble comes when Rebecca is written up after arguing with her manager. Soon thereafter she’s laid off after decades of service when her position is eliminated. The timing is suspicious but rather than interviewing the hotel’s management while rallying to get Rebecca’s job back, Sian-Pierre pushes the story forward by using Rebecca’s frantic voicemails to explain how management was taking away her responsibilities indicating that they were phasing her out. It’s a dire situation faced by countless seniors in the workforce who suddenly find themselves unemployed. As you can imagine that aren’t very many employers searching for 75-year-old workers.
Sian-Pierre may be a journalist who has worked for CNN, MTV, and HLN but at 32 he finds himself in a situation similar to his mother’s, with no savings in the bank to fall back on. How is he going to keep both of them afloat?
While Rebecca uses Sian-Pierre’s laptop to search online for job openings, she becomes frustrated as time goes by without any leads. In a voicemail to her son, she sounds overwrought, “I’m tired of life. I’m tired of everything.”
To ease her tension, Sian-Pierre skypes Rebecca asking her to come up with a list of things she could never do because of her job. He refers to it as a “Life List.” The plan is to do one thing each month for the next year. “How am I going to pay for that?” Rebecca asks, but Sian-Pierre tells her not to worry about it, that’s his problem.
Rebecca’s list includes join Instagram, milk a cow, take a hip-hop class, reunite with family, and go skydiving. Knowing that this would make a great documentary, Sian-Pierre raises $60,000 on Kickstarter in a month which allows him to start knocking off items on the list while documenting their progress.
Using old photographs, video footage, and interviews with family, Sian-Pierre manages to squeeze his mother’s life story into 73 minutes. There are more ups than downs as Rebecca is reunited with the daughter she had to give up as a child — it’s fully explained in the documentary — and a brother she hasn’t seen in ages as she travels back to England.
There are a few melancholy moments in the documentary, but the mood never gets to the point where waterworks are shed. Sian-Pierre doesn’t allow enough time for the viewer to feel somber as the film’s fast pace quickly moves forward to the next adventure on Rebecca’s Life List. Watching her dance to hip-hop, milk a cow, and jump out of an airplane is sure to bring a smile to your face.
“Duty Free” is an enjoyable tribute to mothers everywhere who sacrifice everything for their children. Rebecca is a charming, intelligent 75-year-old who remains sharp and full of enthusiasm. The only regret you may have as a viewer is not coming up with Sian-Pierre’s idea first. Happy Mother’s Day to moms everywhere and to my mom a quick message with love, “Thank You.”
Opens Friday in select theaters and available to stream at https://www.dutyfreefilm.com/watch-the-film