Of all the possible twists in the star-crossed-lovers genre, falling in love across the chain link fences dividing pro– and anti–death penalty activists is nothing if not novel. Throw in the wrench of sexual awakening, class differences, and the impending death of a parent, and you’ve got a lot of issues to handle in a single movie. The greatest triumph of “My Days of Mercy” is that it handles such heavy subject matter with grace and — mercifully — as light a touch as good taste will allow. Of course, that successful execution only goes so far in a lesbian romance about capital punishment. That’s a tough sell, no matter your politics.
Produced by stars Ellen Page and Kate Mara, along with Killer Films’ Christine Vachon, the film tells the story of a young activist named Lucy (Page) whose life is altered unimaginably by a tragedy that landed her father on death row. With her sister Martha (a smoldering Amy Seimetz) and a little brother nearly her size (Charlie Shotwell), Lucy spends weekends attending executions with a tight-knit community of death-penalty activists.
Rolling out of the family’s weathered Winnebago, Lucy locks eyes with the stunningly put together Mercy (Mara). Their connection is immediately charged, but complicated once Lucy realizes Mercy is there with the other side. Her father’s partner was murdered, and she’s confident that the key to her peace is justice served.
Despite her apparent politics, Mercy is an ebullient flirt, interrupting Lucy’s smoke breaks to ply her with brazen compliments. (Cue cheeky rhetorical questions like, “How is it possible you don’t have a boyfriend?”). Lucy is reluctant in person, but back home she is all secret smiles and hummed love songs. Mercy is the only bright spot in a bleak home life; Lucy and Martha’s sole focus is on exonerating their father, whose innocence they defend passionately.
There is nothing they would not do to help him, including Martha’s ongoing relationship with their lawyer, Weldon (Brian Geraghty). “How was your pro-boning?” Lucy asks him in the morning, her distaste emanating from the flippant taunt — the kind Page has built a career on delivering. Martha insists she likes Weldon, and the movie never gives cause to doubt his decency. Love, like justice, is rarely black and white.
Mercy is an equally alluring and frustrating beloved, coming on strong and then backing off as soon as Lucy shows signs of reciprocation. Their first chaste kiss is shared after Lucy unloads her story, sobbing into Mercy’s beckoning lap. (Page contorts her tiny features into so many acrobatic facial feats; it’s as if she thinks ugly crying is the hallmark of good acting). Thankfully, Mercy’s cat-and-mouse game only lasts so long, and the two show that Winnebago the most action it’s seen since Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in “Ironweed.”
Without dwelling on too many salacious details, the sex scenes in “My Days of Mercy” satisfy (and satisfy, and satisfy). Too often lesbian sex is hyperbolized and misrepresented in the movies, overused for thrills and underused for story. In these scenes, we see both Lucy’s awkwardness and Mercy’s aloofness melt away. Mara and Page’s performances reveal subtle shifts in each character, and their producer credits make the concept of actors having agency during sex scenes more than mere lip service.
Director Tali Shalom-Ezer shows remarkable restraint with her third feature, infusing the densely packed material with nuance and levity. Joe Barton’s script has a lot to do, and he manages to balance the seemingly disparate elements with an expert touch. Still, it’s a lot to saddle a so-called “lesbian romance” with, which is how the film will no doubt be packaged. It’s a sign of progress that films involving LGBT elements can explore larger stories, but this is a whole lot of story to explore. It’s jarring to bounce between Lucy’s sexual awakening and her coming to grips with her father’s potential guilt and death, and the connection between the two themes is murky at best.
Martha is the far more interesting character, both because Seimetz is so outstanding and because her journey is more defined. She’s not prepared to accept the darkness at the center of her family, and she’s running away from it as fast as she can, Winnebago in tow. Sex and relationships are a means to an end for her, and she’s using Weldon as much as he’s using her. Compared to Martha’s underexplored journey, Lucy and Mercy’s simple first love story feels one-dimensional.
If “My Days of Mercy” was not prepared to grapple with its deeper themes, it should have left them out entirely. By burying its sweetly rendered lesbian romance in a dense drama about capital punishment, it does a disservice to both stories. The movie doesn’t buckle under the weight of its ambitions, and in straining to find the light it ends up engaging and compelling — even if it is overly complex.
“My Days of Mercy” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.