Rebecca Danigelis loves being professional and precise. A hotel housekeeping supervisor for years, hair coiffed and makeup in place, she checks that everything in a room is just so. “You take things that look like nothing and make them look great,” she says.
Then the hotel decides to reorganize and eliminates her position. At 75, she feels like she was “tossed away,” with little prospect of employment.
The heartwarming documentary Duty Free explores her dilemma yet intersperses it with charming whimsy. Wanting to take her mind off her worries, her son, writer-director Sian-Pierre Regis, initially asks her what she’d most like to do now that she’s not working.
As they explore her wish list, Regis gets to know his mom on a deeper level and discovers that her downsizing is all too common among older and experienced workers.
Regis, a culture critic and personality for CNN, MTV, HLN, and CBS, initially raises money for his mom’s adventures through a Kickstarter campaign. This leads to some news coverage and makes her popular on Instagram under the name “Rebrexit.” Launching a profile is one of the first things she wants to do with a photo of them enjoying the park in Boston. “Cruising,” she says.
Regis proves to be a thoughtful and gentle narrator, and his mom is touchingly frank, both off the cuff and in interviews. She has a natural warmth and wit, noting before tandem skydiving in Hawaii: “We’ll try it out and see how it goes.”
Duty Free has a sweet air of fantasy when following Danigelis along while milking a cow or trying hip-hop choreography, a lighter touch that balances deeper moments. A native of England, Danigelis immigrated to Detroit in her twenties, and one thing she wants is to reconnect with family back home, including a daughter, Joanne, whom she sent to live there when she fell ill after a divorce.
To Danigelis, this seemed natural at the time, having no other support in the United States, but Joanne confides that she often felt upset and insecure. Joanne may never forgive her, Danigelis notes later, but they now have a closer relationship.
Paced well during its 1 hour and 11 minutes, Duty Free covers three years of adventures, including how other older workers who similarly feel displaced reach out to Danigelis. Duty Free doesn’t state it outright, but it’s a pleasure to see Regis’s love for his mom translate into a showing of how people have value, regardless of age. (The film’s website includes anti-ageism resources.)
It’s also moving to see Danigelis realize that while she was glad to make sacrifices in order to raise her family, she shortchanged her own needs. “I have realized the world is a much bigger place,” she says, an insight we’re never too old to learn.