A lesbian romance stretching across bitterly divided death-penalty political lines might sound like a recipe for case-pleading dramatic contrivance, but it’s handled with plausible restraint and delicacy in “My Days of Mercy,” Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s first U.S. feature.
Her acclaimed prior 2015 “Princess” was a disturbingly intimate portrait of unconventional domesticity edging toward quasi-incestuous abuse. It showed high promise, but there’s still a sense of surprise in how well Shalom-Ezer navigates the very different focus and milieu of Joe Barton’s astute screenplay here. Produced as a vehicle for co-starring friends Ellen Page and Kate Mara, “Mercy” serves them both well, with critical support likely to help the film find an audience despite its challenging themes.
The Moro family are first glimpsed on what appears to be a vacation, but in fact is something very different: driving their ancient RV to yet another vigil amongst death-penalty foes (and advocates) outside a prison where another convict is about to be executed. Maternal eldest sibling Martha (Amy Seimetz) is the literal and figurative driving force behind these road trips, with 22-year-old Lucy (Ellen Page) a more ambivalent participant, while grade-school-aged brother Ben (Charlie Shotwell) is too young to have much opinion one way or the other. It takes a while for us to suss out their mutual dynamics, not to mention what got them here — the longtime Death Row residency of their father Simon (Elias Koteas), who was found guilty of murdering their mother eight years ago but maintains his innocence.
There’s an uneasy co-existence at such events between the “enemy” camps, with little interaction if little overt hostility. So it seems like an invisible line-crossing when nonconformist Lucy finds herself making friends with cheerleader-ish Mercy (Mara), who’s on the other side: Her father has agitated for the execution of a mentally disabled man who killed his off-duty longtime police partner. The two young women’s fledgling relationship continues later via online contact between their respective Ohio and Illinois homes, then jumps from flirtation to romance when Lucy commandeers the RV to rendezvous at another gathering.
But there remains something furtive and dangerous about their connection. Shalom-Ezer limns several fairly explicit sex scenes with the tension of possibly getting “caught.” it’s not just that the protagonists are semi-defying their families by seeing one another. Their liaison also reveals how needy small-town outcast Lucy is, while Mercy reveals suspiciously little about her own circumstances. Moreover, the latter is in a position to offer legal advice that might finally exonerate the Moro’s incarcerated dad — or, conversely, might cement his guilt. All these factors, plus the presence of Brian Geraghty as a lawyer who’s become involved with Martha over the long course of Simon’s appeals, exacerbate imbalances in a fragile household that’s been in a kind of suspended animation since one parent died and another “went away.”
Barton finds drama not just in individual characters, but in the variably grieving and/or angry cultures that grow around a hot-button political issue like the death penalty. Wisely, his script defers from stacking the deck in one direction or another, thought the sharply observed dialogue does make room for arguments on both sides. More central, however, are the non-polemical rhythms of Midwestern life, which are captured with assured detail by Shalom-Ezer and her major below-the-line collaborators, notably production designer Maya Sigel.
Page, in the middle of a very busy year (beyond this premiere and “The Cured,” TIFF venues are wallpapered with posters for the imminent “Flatliners” remake), gives one of her best performances in a tailor-made role. Mara is fine as a character whose elusiveness ultimately transcends plot device. Seimetz excels as a woman who’s held it together under duress for so long she may no longer know how to live in a state of non-crisis. Supporting roles are very well cast.