Four months after writer-director Beth LaMure wrapped production on her first movie, “Daisy Winters,” she took her own life. Her spirit is palpable in the film she’d just finished editing, a small, but clearly heartfelt story about an 11-year-old named Daisy (Sterling Jerins) who is obsessed with death — and with good reason. Her single mother Sandy (Brooke Shields) has been battling cancer for five years, and if mom loses the fight, orphaned Daisy will be forced to live with Aunt Margaret (Carrie Preston), a kid-spanking snob eager to instill discipline in the morbid child. What happens next is at once improbable and emotionally sincere, a Hallmark card with warped edges, and a strong central performance by Jerins (“Paterson,” “The Conjuring”), who’s a young actress to watch.
Five minutes into the film, it’s clear that Daisy is an unusually brutal girl. She’s at the dinner table when her mother’s best friend Suzy (Kathy Takada) announces that she’s fallen in love with a new girlfriend. In response, Daisy hastily shovels in her spaghetti so she can read Suzy an after-dinner poem she’s written called “Pills.” It’s about Suzy’s last breakup and suicide attempt, and Jerins delivers the lines with the stern judgment of the immature. The subtext stings: Don’t get that weak again.
Everything about Daisy is dramatic, including the giant graphics on her T-shirts: a huge heart, a big flower, a scuffed-up smiley face, a flock of bats. At school, she writes more poems with titles like “Fear” in her fiddly cursive while her classmates scratch out trifles about cats. When someone tells her a sad story about their childhood, she laughs. One day, while walking to class with her best friend Jackson (Nick Gore), she wagers that their next-door neighbor is dead. This is the kind of movie where she’s right.
Can you blame Aunt Margaret for attempting to confiscate Daisy’s DVD of “Harold and Maude”? The script does: It shuns all forms of emotional repression. Instead, LaMure lavishes attention on Daisy and Sandy’s loving bond. They fight, and more than once, Shields, soft-voiced and fretful, stares at the girl like she hatched from an egg. More often, however, LaMure delights in shooting them circled up together on a chair like twins with their matching long brown hair and thick eyebrows.
Daisy Winters whisks through montages of bliss: the pair making cookies, unwrapping presents, clinking glasses at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. But Daisy’s overheard enough conversations to know the good times might end. So she’s made a couple contingency lists. One of them starts with “Rope.” Oh, and there’s also a blow-up doll.
This sounds like the set-up to a dark comedy — the “Home Alone” of terminal illness, perhaps — but LaMure is after something more tender than that, a hard-luck coming of age story to pair with the gentle folk music on the soundtrack. Shawn Maurer’s cinematography is warm and bright, switching to handheld camerawork mainly when Daisy starts to panic. There’s a stretch of the film that nearly plays like a British parlor farce where the front door never stops knocking.
Right when things get weird, “Daisy Winters” gets unexpectedly inert, as though it has to keep its quirks in balance. A hacker recluse named Doug (Iwan Rheon) takes on a larger role in the plot, and behaves in ways that don’t quite compute, even after he explains his odd backstory. For a sanity check, the film occasionally cuts to Jackson’s mother Annabel (Poorna Jagannathan), one of the only adults in the film who cares about curfews.
Yet even in its strangest moments, there’s something refreshing in LaMure’s insistence that human behavior doesn’t fit in tidy boxes, and that kids are stronger than adults suspect. LaMure has an intriguing voice. It’s a shame we won’t get to hear more from her.