Emily Lape and Alison Hixon on “Mercy’s Girl”

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Alison Hixon and Emily Lape in “Mercy’s Girl.”

Few films in recent memory have made me melt quite as often as “Mercy’s Girl,” Emily Lape’s debut feature as a writer, director, producer and editor. It was shot four years ago in Chicago and received an online release at the end of 2018, following its local festival premiere. Had I been lucky enough to see the film last year, it would’ve easily cracked my top ten. In its delicately nuanced portrait of two young women falling for one another during a brief yet transformative period of time, Lape nails the giddiness and heartache that often accompanies the early stages of a relationship. Scene after scene is chock-full of moments that had me blushing in recognition, such as when sunny college student Jesse (Alison Hixon) affirms that she is interested in her closeted crush, Mercy (Lape), who chuckles while pausing to fully absorb the news. In an excellent cut, the film then jumps to footage of Mercy cleaning her apartment, the earliest sign that this newfound connection has triggered an inner evolution that will last long after the picture cuts to black. As I’ve recently learned myself, there’s nothing like a relationship to prompt you to get your shit together.

Lape and Hixon are so utterly convincing as the smitten pair that you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on their every flirtation and tender embrace. I savored the moment when Mercy rested her head on Jesse’s lap, prompting the devoted lover to put her book down and stroke her girlfriend’s hair. Yet “Mercy’s Girl” is not the feel-good romance that it could’ve become in the hands of focus group-favoring studio executives. It is a rigorously unsentimental, often harrowing examination of its titular heroine’s journey toward accepting herself on her own terms, one that is nearly derailed when she’s labeled an “embarrassment” by her churchgoing mother (Rainee Denham). There are no cardboard villains or other assorted contrivances in this cinematic gem, only the ebbs and flows of life, brilliantly and beautifully observed. It’s clear that the film was ripped directly from the souls of those who made it, and that’s the sort of work, in any medium, that moves me most of all.

Not long ago, Lape and Hixon met with me to reminisce about their collaboration-turned-friendship, and our conversation ended up taking a deep dive into a slew of vital topics, from harassment and inequality to the ways in which a safe and liberating set can be maintained.

In your tips for first-time directors that was published on your site, you stress the importance of a casting director. Did you have one for “Mercy’s Girl”?

Emily Lape (EL): No, I had a casting assistant that helped pull in people. I came here from Los Angeles, and I didn’t know anybody in Chicago at all. I didn’t have a single contact in the film industry back in 2015, so I did a lot of interviewing. The Chicago filmmaking scene was quite different four years ago. There were casting directors here, but not very many who would work on an indie film with a $25,000 budget. Alison and I met through an audition, and I was drawn to her energy. She was really captivating onscreen. The camera loved her, and she was just so honest. Only later as we got onset did I discover how artistically talented she is in multiple arenas.

Alison Hixon (AH): I remember that audition in the Annoyance Theater basement. I was one of the only people there, and had already liked the story of the film. When I was auditioning with Emily, it immediately felt right. I felt comfortable reading with her, and I knew that there was a connection of some sort. I just didn’t know it would be this strong. I was also allowed to improvise. She let me throw away the script and just say what I would say in that particular situation.

EL: I think because I have an acting background, I knew what I would want if I was an actor coming in to audition. So I tried to provide that space for her. I didn’t care about sticking to the lines, I really just wanted the meaning behind them to be conveyed. It was great. The film itself is pretty much tightly scripted. If anything, we set it off of our own words.

AH: We shot this film guerilla-style, so there was a lot of flexibility about scenes and where they were located, which changed their dynamic. That was fun because it kept you wondering what would happen next.

EL: Almost everything was shot on a shoulder rig, and we would have to adjust once we got to the location. Production went from 2015 into 2016. I wanted to capture the seasons, with the relationship beginning in the spring. Summer is the full-on heat of the relationship, and then fall is where things have died. That metaphor is noticeable only in wide shots or when you study the characters’ wardrobe. You would likely notice the changing seasons a lot more in the first cut, which was almost four hours long.

I would honestly love to see that cut.

AH: I would too! [laughs]

Was it important to continue building that trust and chemistry prior to production?

EL: We didn’t hang out too much beforehand. I knew that I wanted to shoot the lovemaking scene first because I didn’t want to know Alison too well prior to us being nude together on camera. Casting myself in the lead role was a last-minute decision. She actually tested with another actress, and there wasn’t chemistry between them. Yet Alison had a lightness and sunshine that was right for Jesse. It’s a luminous character, and she just nailed it. I needed to find someone who could balance that sunshine with darkness and who was committed to going through Mercy’s painful emotional journey.

I originally wanted to have some diversity in the cast, and I felt really frustrated on that front. I think now I’d have a better chance of finding diverse actresses for the role, but at that time, I put out so many feelers and I would get no more than ten, fifteen girls to come audition. When I couldn’t get another actress to read with Alison, I read with her for a screen test. My sister, who is a filmmaker too, saw Alison and I together and she was like, “You guys have chemistry, you should play Mercy.” We did a one-day trial shoot to see if I could act on camera as well as direct, and it ended up working okay. Our second scene on the first day of production was the lovemaking scene, and it was the first scene that Alison shot. We had to do this very intimate, personal thing in front of the whole crew—

AH: And there was a lot of trust.

EL: There was. But how did you [Emily] feel about the full nudity required for the scene? That was what made it difficult to audition people for the role.

AH: You made a safe space for me by presenting the script and contextualizing the scene. I wouldn’t do something that was exploitative, or where I was uncomfortable. I love slow, naturalistic movies that portray the rawness of a relationship. I knew that you weren’t going to distort this in any way.

EL: I’ve never asked you this before!

AH: And I had never done that before. As soon as we began shooting, I felt comfortable. I trusted you.

What’s so beautiful about that scene, from an audience perspective, is that it’s not about nudity or voyeurism, but the sensory experience of intimacy. How did you work with Justin Howe, the cinematographer, to find the film’s visual language?

AH: He was so good.

EL: I often created a shot list and improvised on the space once we got there. I had an idea of what I wanted, and I like a lot of long one-takes. I hate cutting in between the action. I want to do the whole scene while we move the camera, revealing new shots within the frame. We did a lot of that, and he has a really good eye. Before I hired Justin, I sent him a bunch of Ken Loach films. I was like, “This is the feel that I want for the film,” and he got it right away. He is so adaptable. It was also his first feature film. I could only pay $150, $200 a day, and Justin came on as a sound person for that trial shoot. The cinematographer that I had originally hired ended up flaking out, and Justin e-mailed me and was like, “Please, give me a shot to do this.” I agreed to give it a shot for one day, and he blew me away with the footage. We developed our own language.

AH: That’s Emily! She gives people a chance to be themselves. That’s what I feel was so special about this movie. She texted me before this interview and was like, “We’re going to have to think about what this movie was four years ago,” but it’s still so clear in my mind and so close to my heart. We got to express ourselves, and I loved it.

I love how your characters feel each other out through humor, such as when Mercy jokes that Jesse cannot drop off her bag at her place.

AH: There was a natural chemistry between us, and we definitely did feed off of each other.

EL: We laughed so much, and we would crack ourselves up with these silly jokes and observations.

AH: We were doing a scene which I don’t think is in the film when I’m telling Mercy that I love her, and we were trying to get my hands on the bed—

EL:—and for the angle that we were shooting, her hands had to be in the frame, but they weren’t under anything because of the way that we had to shoot. So Alison had to hold her hands up in the air during the scene. She was saying these really deep lines, and she felt like a little hamster or a rat wiggling her paws. We couldn’t concentrate. [laughs] There were so many moments like that. We had such a good set life and such a small crew that we all really bonded. It was a blast.

Was there a scene that was especially difficult to tackle emotionally?

AH: The scene where I am cleaning Mercy in the bathtub, and she confesses that she slept with someone else, is basically the breaking point of trust between her and Jesse. We had to reshoot that scene because it was so hot in that tub.

EL: It was a really long day, and Alison was eventually like, “I don’t think I can do this.”

AH: But then we got it the next day. I would journal a lot before I would come to shoot and Emily gave me my space to be in the moment and check in with myself about what was happening. That was probably the most challenging moment for me to go through emotionally.

EL: I felt weird because I kept getting rough with Alison during the scene, and I don’t know if it shows on camera. I’m grabbing her and pulling her and it was actually pretty rough when we shot it. I later had to ask myself, “Woah, was that okay?” Here I am, a person in power, getting rough with my co-star, and that really bothered me for a while. I kind of didn’t know where the scene was going to end or how it was going to end.

You weren’t expecting to get to that emotional place in the scene.

EL: I wasn’t expecting it at all. We had done so much preparation, and then when we started shooting, it just all came out.

AH: Yeah, I could feel that.

EL: I can’t even watch the film, because it feels so vulnerable.

AH: It is! It’s so personal.

EL: It’s not only a vision of mine and a story that I feel really close to, but also seeing myself in those situations, and knowing what work I was doing mentally to get in that space, I can barely watch it.

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Alison Hixon and Emily Lape in “Mercy’s Girl.”

How important is the implementation of an intimacy coordinator to you onset?

EL: It is essential. Even in the intimate scene that we shot, we had it blocked out. I didn’t want it to last long. Here I am, the director, fully naked in front of my crew, and it was really uncomfortable for me, so I knew that everything needed to be blocked. That is very important to maintain a professional environment. I would’ve loved to have somebody come in at that point and be like a third party telling us what to do and where to move, so that we, as actors, were not responsible for that.

AH: As long as there is open communication between everyone onset, I’m comfortable with a scene like this. Justin also guided us too, a little bit, for the camera.

EL: As an actress, I have done nudity in all my roles. One of my earliest films was really graphic. Full nudity was required for several moments throughout the film, including a rape scene. I remember being terrified and feeling very vulnerable because some of the scenes did get out of control, and it was a male-driven set. All of the other roles were male, and I was the only female there. I’ve been on sets where they pushed alcohol on me, and were like, “Why don’t you loosen up? Go sit in the room and drink and get ready for the shot.” It was awful.

Do you feel, almost on a subconscious level, that when you were directing the nude scene in “Mercy’s Girl,” you wanted to correct what you had previously experienced on film sets?

EL: Yes! I cannot believe you know that. It’s so true, and it brought me so much healing after being in LA for seven years, and often being powerless, as most actors are, especially actresses in the industry, when every single person around you is male. You go in and audition, and the producer and director are male. They are the decision-makers and it messes with your psyche after a while. I knew that when I would be directing onset, nobody would feel sexually harassed. Everybody is going to feel like they have input and value. It’s always going to be that way. Every film I do is going to be that way.

Do you have experience in the Chicago theatre community?

AH: I graduated college with a theater degree, and I moved to Chicago with the idea of continuing to perform onstage. I had always loved film while growing up, and knew that I wanted to act onscreen someday as well. I did some short films, like student films, and kind of got a feel for what it was like. I got hooked, and felt this pull to do that more. I was just waiting for an opportunity, a story to feel good, before making my first feature, which was “Mercy’s Girl.” But I had acted onstage before Emily cast me.

EL: What was that like, I’m curious, because I’ve never acted in Chicago.

AH: It was a mixed bag. I had some really awesome experiences, but I stopped acting onstage after my experience at Profiles Theatre.

[Profiles Theatre was a critically acclaimed Chicago-based theater that closed permanently when charges of abuse and harassment administered by its artistic director, Darrell W. Cox, were made public in a blistering 2016 Chicago Reader exposé.]

EL: Alison was in the last production, and she was one of the leads.

AH: It left a really bad taste in my mouth for theatre. I felt very betrayed.

EL: At the time, she was telling me, “It’s so weird because the lead actor [Darrell] is directing everything, but he’s not the director. It feels like this one guy is just telling everyone what to do.” It was such an intense schedule, with rehearsals five, six days a week.

AH: I got paid a hundred bucks after all that time, and we got extended. I felt so stupid. Right after we finished that play, the building was vandalized and everything was gone. Last I heard, he was in Florida.

EL: I’m sure he’s changed his name.

AH: It was so backwards. I didn’t want to deal with the theatre community after that. This is supposed to be an uplifting experience. You make yourself so vulnerable in acting and to take advantage of someone like that is so infuriating. So I took a little break and made a short film, which ended up being very male-dominated, and again, it was uncomfortable. I was like, “Don’t you need to be talking to me? Because I’m in this scene too. Why are you only talking to him?”

EL: It was a girlfriend role. Why not ask the actress and the actor how they feel, and give both of them a voice?

AH: And Emily did ask me about what I thought during production. I was like, “Me? You trust me? As a person, too?” That’s a gift. It was truly a gift to be listened to.

EL: When it came to the nude scene, Alison and I would go off alone and talk. I told her that no matter what happens, we can stop filming the scene at any point. I never said action or cut in this film, ever. When we were ready, in the moment, we’d start rolling. When it feels natural, let’s go ahead, and when it starts dying down, we’ll end it. We had to be intimate with each other and wanted it to feel real, so we’d ask each other, “Where do you feel comfortable being touched? Do you feel okay with me touching you there?” Just a conversation about it goes a long way.

There is a deep scar that has been left untreated in this artistic community. The Profiles story came out and then it’s gone along with the abuser.

EL: Gone, and there’s no retribution for it, other than he left. Oftentimes when you gather the courage to step up and accuse someone like him, you get threatened on top of that, and then you become the perpetrator in everybody else’s eyes.

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Emily Lape in “Mercy’s Girl.”

What do you think our community in Chicago needs to really heal?

AH: Oh my gosh. I honestly wish, in that specific situation in that theatre, that there would’ve been a person not affiliated with the venue to come and check up on everybody during rehearsals. I don’t know how you can really fix that, though, because it is so embedded in the system. I went through it for months, and I had no idea what was really happening until I was like, “Woah, what the fuck, that was not right. I could’ve done something, I could’ve said something and I should’ve said something.”

But you were not aware of it in that moment.

AH: No, not at all, until it hits you like a bomb.

EL: There was nobody for you to complain to because he had all the power. I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me so many times in LA. It’s a weird line to tread because there are directors who abuse their power who also serve as your mentor.

That’s where they get you. They’re offering real guidance while taking advantage of you at the same time.

AH: He makes you feel like he’s your mentor, and he makes you feel like this is important and we are in this together. And if you’re not all in, then fuck you, get out, you don’t deserve to be here.

EL: It’s so confusing. That’s the other thing I’ve noticed with these perpetrators is that they make you feel that if you don’t comply, you are not fully artistic, you’re not being a real artist, you’re not really giving in fully to your craft. That is another manipulative thing that they do, and I’ve experienced that on many occasions. I think you’re right about the importance of having a third party present, especially in a union theatre production. I remember going to an agent of mine to talk about it, and nobody wants to do anything. Nobody wants to rock the boat. They’ll be like, “Maybe you misinterpreted what he meant when he put his hand on your thigh,” or, “You’re going to turn that down? It’s such a big paycheck!”

AH: When I decided to start painting more, I felt more in control. I am so thankful to have that outlet right now, and it definitely is like acting. This is me, this is what I am, and this is what I bring to this life and this table. It’s vulnerable and liberating to share a part of myself. I’ve also been doing auditions on the side for commercial work and stuff like that, but I haven’t really found a film that I feel connected to. I still want to act again and put myself out there, but I want it to be meaningful.

When I see Michael Smith make his films, like “Rendezvous in Chicago,” I’m like, “There is good shit out there. There are good people in Chicago who want to work and want to help and be advocates for actors.” It’s liberating when you get to act, and Chicago is such a good place for theatre, for acting and for film. Joe and Kris Swanberg are here, and I remember seeing Kris’ film, “Empire Builder,” in college. She brought it to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, for its festival spotlighting women in film, and I loved it so much. I bought it on Vimeo and watched it over and over. I love how silent it was. She did not need to use dialogue to make that story happen, and it was placed basically in one spot, in that cabin. I just remember the feeling of it, and the female lead was so powerful.

EL: I’ve done highly emotional roles where the director would corner me and try to get sexually involved with me after an intense scene. This is when I am completely broken, emotionally spent and physically drained, after having to be upset and carry that emotion while they’re filming me from different angles. They’ve wrung me out, I have no defenses, and the director kept pursuing me to the point where the crew—the males on the crew—started being aware of the situation, thank god, and got involved. It’s mind-blowing how rampant this abuse is.

I’ve never shared that story. I wish I could come out about that and call him out specifically, and I don’t know why I haven’t. I think it’s because I do care about him in this messed-up way, so it’s really complicated. That’s why I seriously don’t want to act anymore. Michael’s really pushing me to act, and I would with Michael. I feel safe with him, but I don’t want to act. I had intentions of leaving LA never to act again and only direct my own films.

Having more women in power, in general, is what will begin turning the tide. It was just so out of balance in the industry. All the men had power and the women didn’t. Even my male friends—gay and straight—have been targeted by gay, older male producers. Honestly, I can tell you that on about fifty percent of the projects I’ve done, I’ve dealt with harassment. I’ve been in rooms with really well-known directors when auditioning for roles, one in particular that would’ve changed my life. The director walked me to my car after the audition, came onto me and I pushed him off. I didn’t end up getting the role, and the woman who did became a huge star. I can only imagine what she went through. I ran into her in the bathroom at a festival, and we talked a bit because we remembered each other from the audition. It’s not like I could go up to her and ask, “Hey, how did that work out?”

You are both phenomenal actresses, and it makes me so angry to see someone in power try to rob you of your self-worth.

EL: And it did rob us. I don’t want to audition anymore. I have no taste for it.

AH: Why put myself through something like that over and over again? That’s why it was so much fun to do “Mercy’s Girl”. Meeting Emily, this kick-ass woman, who is making her own film, writing it—like seriously doing it, no matter what—is still, to this day, inspiring and that’s why we are friends.

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Emily Lape in “Mercy’s Girl.”

“Mercy’s Girl” is about someone being robbed of their self-worth. How were you able to portray this violation so vividly, when Mercy’s mother says the most horrible things to her daughter in the most nurturing voice possible?

EL: Oh man, it’s hard to say because it’s from my own personal life. I have experienced situations like that where I’ve said something very truthful and at the core of myself with someone close to me. It’s like I’m holding up a fragile gift only to have that person crush it in a well-meaning way. That often happens in relationships with parents and people that you look up to and are hoping will offer their support. I have just experienced that personally in my life.

Did you have a particular religious perspective coming into this film?

EL: I’m so fascinated with religion! When I was growing up, my father was a missionary pastor, so I moved across the U.S. and we did missionary work in Mexico. I moved every nine months to a new city, a new town, and I remember being five years old, going out on the street with him as he’s trying to “harass people into Jesus.” I was about five or six years old when I started getting a lot of attention from the males in my father’s church—not that he was aware of this—and it blew my mind. That’s also when women came to me and pointed out something that I was wearing, whether it was open-toe shoes or spandex shorts that totally sexualized me at a young age. I began to feel guilty, and developed a fear of older males. That was my first instance of being confused about religion and sexuality and what it meant to me. Even today, it is really confusing how there are hard lines when it comes to certain issues, like sexual orientation, while openness and love are supposedly being taught. It’s really confusing, and I grapple with it a lot.

I was reminded of “Rachel Getting Married” in how you portray the warmth of community in this film.

AH: Oh my god, that’s one of my favorite movies ever! It’s genius. I’ve seen that movie five times, and the writing in that is so good. It’s so authentic that it literally makes you feel like a fly on the wall.

The fact of the wedding overtakes Anne Hathaway’s narrative, and she’s able to make peace with her wounds. I love how the director, Jonathan Demme, samples each toast made by guests around the table, rather than just cut to Hathaway’s speech punctuated by reaction shots.

EL: He makes time for everyone.

I was reminded of that scene in “Mercy’s Girl” at the party as well as the church support group.

EL: There’s more of that in the longer cut. I wanted to build a sense of the world and Mercy’s surroundings by taking a break from the main story and getting some breathing room in there. Each of us has our own story, and we just happen to be following one of them throughout the majority of this film. When she’s able to sit back and listen to the people at the support group, she finds her own life reflected in their stories. I wish I could’ve used more of that footage, but I can’t make my film three hours long. [laughs]

There’s one particular AA meeting in the opening of the film where the character of Mercy is established and you see where she is coming from. Then there’s a similar gathering later on, at the church, where she’s having a breakdown after losing somebody. I just wanted to show how she goes about finding her place of acceptance. All Mercy needed in life was to find her group, her people. Just hang in there, and you will find the people who understand you. You’ll be fine. That is the overall message that I wish people would take away from the film. Instead, people are often left asking, “Why didn’t she and Jesse end up together?”

You understand where each person is coming from in that final scene. Mercy is a changed person by the end, though Jesse has every right to refuse forgiveness, even as she brands her ex with the label of “toxic.” I imagine Jesse’s loved ones used that term when learning of Mercy’s behavior.

EL: “She cheated on you, she’s an alcoholic,” yeah.

AH: Coming from Jesse’s point of view, I think the reason why they didn’t work out is because she expected things to be open between them.

EL: Jesse says to her at one point in the bathroom fight, “Where were you? Why didn’t you come to me? I would’ve been there for you.” And I think Mercy didn’t have the tools to do that. She knew what to rely on, which was the safe fix—drinking and being self-destructive. She could go back to that, but she realized that this option no longer served her. She had a big learning lesson by losing Jesse. As for Jesse, she didn’t really understand that Mercy had gotten assaulted during her sexual encounter with the man at the bar. She saw the bruise, but she didn’t know what had really happened. I felt like Alison’s character had to move on.

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Alison Hixon in “Mercy’s Girl.”

So much growth happens on both sides during a relationship, and you take that growth into the next chapter of your life.

AH: You’re always growing if you open your heart to someone, try something new and learn about someone. It was so heartbreaking for Jesse to see Mercy is such a distraught state and not know what was going on. To be with someone for so long and to not be informed of what was happening, a barrier of distrust formed. Jesse knew what she wanted out of life, and Mercy was lost. I think Jesse really did want to help and be there for her, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

EL: At this point in my life, I know Mercy’s point of view so well. I myself have struggled with addiction and self-destructive behavior that led me to burn people out of my life. It was a learning lesson for me, and I got stronger. I learned to battle my demons, but it is really hard for people that care about you to see you behave in this way. I’ve also been with somebody who had really destructive behavior, and that was hard. How long do you stand by, especially if they are withholding information? It’s so sad in that respect because they could’ve been happy together and I think that’s very real in life. I’ve recently gone through a break-up and I know that feeling of, “We could’ve worked, and for these reasons, we didn’t, and c’est la vie, that is life.”

How you bookended the film with ambience has an effect similar to the silence in “Empire Builder.” Just the sound of passing cars feels right as we see these lives intersect before parting ways. You’re also not imposing an overarching tone through an intrusive score.

EL: You’re one of the only people who really noticed that and felt something from that. It’s a choice that was really important to me. I wanted to open the film by having Mercy walk into the audience, in a way, and end the film with her walking away. I knew I wanted to do that, but I didn’t know what that would represent on an emotional level. When she walks away, it’s so crazy. She and Jesse have had this really intense conversation, and they’re saying goodbye at this park, while everyone else is going about their day. As they walk away from one another, there are cars driving by and you see a garbage bag flying down the road. I just wanted to capture a piece of real life from what I’ve experienced. It’s a strange thing, this world and this life.

There’s still such a double standard when it comes to the stories that are deemed acceptable for women to tell.

EL: My god, Matt, I am actually battling this right now! I am writing a script that deals with a woman who is a sex worker, but she’s doing it by choice. I don’t want to make her a victim, and I know I’m going to get so much shit for it, so it probably won’t be my next film. I’ll probably shoot another one first that’s a little bit safer, in a way. I’m scared of the feedback I’ll get from my female friends about tackling this sort of subject matter, but it is a story that I want to tell, and it’s a dark comedy. It’s going to be a total fun ride, but I am currently battling that double standard. Why is it that female filmmakers get chastised for telling stories about women who are sexually empowered?

Because there are so many men who are uncomfortable with seeing an empowered woman.

EL: That is so true.

What’s most uplifting about this film is that Mercy is able to own who she is, even if she can’t be open with Jesse about it.

AH: That’s how I felt after watching the film. There’s always going to be dirt and grime, but I felt Mercy’s story was uplifting. I like that last scene a lot.

EL: That was one of the major themes that I wanted to explore, not only for myself, but for other people in my life who were experiencing that self-acceptance. Even though Mercy would’ve loved for her mother to accept her for who she was, part of her journey in the film is getting to the point where she can accept herself for who she is. She is a lesbian, and that’s okay.

Mercy’s encounter with her father (Dennis Newport), whose acceptance is nonverbally conveyed, is potently juxtaposed with the tense meeting she endures with her mother’s stepfather (Robert Kaercher), who relishes the opportunity to assert his power.

EL: I wanted to fully represent both parenting styles. In the car scene with Mercy’s father, he has a cross hanging from his dashboard. I wanted her to have somebody in her life that—even though he may not have seen it coming and doesn’t really understand it and may not be up on what it all means—will love her for who she is. He has his own vices and he knows she has her own, and that’s okay. They’re still family, and I wanted to show that this sort of safe haven could be a reality too, and that is a reality for many people. And then with Henry, her stepfather, I think it was just an extension of her mother, of how completely out of touch they were about their daughter’s identity. The fact that the mother invited her ex-boyfriend to the dinner in the beginning of the film demonstrated how they weren’t really seeing Mercy for who she is.

What is the best way for people to find this movie?

EL: It’s on Amazon, Vimeo and YouTube. We submitted to a few festivals, but not that many. I’m not good about the business end of filmmaking, whereas Michael and Kyle Henry, who made “Rogers Park,” are really good about getting their work out there. They obviously are from Chicago, so they know the scene, and I really didn’t know it when I made this film. So it’s kind of finding its own way in this world, and I think that’s even more perfect.

Kind of like how Mercy is finding her way through the world.

EL: Exactly, there is no destination for this film. It is for the people who are called to watch it or feel drawn to it, and that’s all you can ask for, at least all I can ask for.

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“Mercy’s Girl,” written and directed by Emily Lape.

What are your future projects?

AH: I just want to keep putting my art out there and doing personalized illustrations for people has been really fun. I’ve been challenging myself to do bigger paintings and trying to do some mural work around town, and am slowly getting some traction. But I also really want to do some film. And directing, too, seems very interesting. I’d love to work next to Emily and do that sometime.

EL: I think that’s what’s in my and her future together is producing and working together side by side. I have no interest in acting, but I am extremely interested in telling stories. I have a new film coming up, and it focuses on grief. I had never experienced grief until recently, and the way it changes people around you—how time freezes while the world just continues to spin—is mind-blowing. I have so much empathy for anybody who has lost somebody really close to them. I am so excited about this story, and I do feel that it’s already in my arena, so I feel very safe with it but I am still very passionate about it. The script is about an older African-American man who loses his wife and goes into a very dark, grumpy place, but he finds his way out through befriending the immigrant family that lives next door. He kind of finds hope again. I plan to shoot it in the same style as “Mercy’s Girl.”

Do you believe art provides a sense of catharsis in a way that life often does not?

AH: Yeah, I think so.

EL: Sometimes I want to experience art in a cathartic way, other times I want art to numb me out and take me on an adventure and all of that. I don’t think the work that I make is ever going to be that way, at least not at this time in my life, because I am really drawn to expressing stuff that I don’t feel like other people are telling. So that really gets me going and energizes me. I am searching for that cathartic moment in telling a story. Now in consuming, I usually want to be entertained unless I’m in the mood to explore a topic within myself.

Well, I can honestly tell you that your film gave me much-needed catharsis, and I cannot thank you enough for making it.

EL: Matt, thank you so much for being interested in our movie.

AH: It feels good to talk about it, about everything.

EL: We worked so hard every day to tell this story and all of us were so committed to it. Now the film is out, and not everybody is going to get it, but it just feels so good when somebody does. It’s like, “Yes! That is the reward.”

“Mercy’s Girl” is available to watch on Amazon, Vimeo and YouTube. To find more info on Emily Lape’s films, artwork and blog, visit her official site. Also make sure to check out Alison Hixon’s personalized artwork at her site, SheSaidIllustration.com.

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