It’s an unorthodox but sweetly unsurprising premise: the cancer-stricken Emma (Petey J. Gibson) demands her wife Josie (Nika Ezell Pappas) meet someone new so she won’t become a lonely widow without love. This turn of events doesn’t surprise because writer/director Brendan Boogie already presented the unbelievably awkward way in which their relationship began. Emma is therefore right to worry the odds aren’t in their favor that Josie absentmindedly elbows another unsuspecting match in the nose to break the ice and ignite a guilt-fueled confidence that offsets her crippling anxiety under “normal” dating circumstances. Maybe a hardline stance of no cuddles until Josie gets laid will force instinct to overcome nerves. And maybe the ludicrous task will distract both from the tragic reality of Emma’s death looming large.
Because the ultimatum motivates Josie to at least try to fulfill her wife’s dying wish, The Sympathy Card quickly spirals into a series of nightmarishly embarrassing scenarios that make a broken nose seem desirable. And to make matters worse, Emma isn’t receiving the blow. If these other women meet Josie’s lack of grace with furrowed brows and glances towards the nearest exit rather than a curious smile, the experiment becomes dead in the water. Emma is the one who found her discomfort cutely endearing to transform an apology into a date. She’s the one who provided Josie the room to calm down and let her true identity (weird still) shine above the psychological and emotional barriers. That’s why they worked. That’s why they fell in love.
Forcing Josie to be a fish out of water amongst strangers when she’d rather be by Emma’s side is therefore never going to be conducive to true romantic investment. That the situations she’s thrust into are supervised by her brother (Grayson Powell’s Tate) and his wife (Kelly MacFarland’s Juliana) or Emma’s imposing, polyamorist lesbian friends (Sindy Katrotic’s Katrina and Kristie Larson’s Cherub) ensure they’re even less likely to succeed because she’s suddenly beholden to an audience cheering her on too. It’s natural then that the one person Josie is able to open up to is the florist (Lauren Neal’s Siobhan) who’s been selling her the flowers she gives to Emma every date night. Their dynamic doesn’t begin with sex in mind … but it might get there nonetheless.
Boogie has all the pieces to go full throttle into comedy and he does for the most the part—at least superficially. There are some cringe-worthy moments that deliver hilarity and some that go on too long to muster more than a smirk, but that’s all a façade atop his ability to never forget the stakes. Everyone can laugh and feel for Josie’s absurd plight, but Emma is still at home coughing with an oxygen tank after smoking like a chimney for years (she even has a cigarette hanging from her mouth while playing soccer). Rather than be Josie’s burden, Emma is desperate to set her free. Whether her wife finds new love or hates the old one, this plan lets her know she doesn’t have to stay.
While this obviously isn’t Emma’s decision to make on her own, the fact she does anyway inherently creates greater nuance than just two outcomes. Where studio films take this trajectory down one of two paths—Josie simply leaving or staying—an independent production is able to swerve and let the characters exist within an authentic space that isn’t beholden to binary answers. What if Josie does find someone? Will Emma quickly buckle to prove it was all a ruse for which she didn’t weigh the consequences? Or will she be genuinely happy to facilitate a “peaceful” transition that she initiated? And what about the third party? Will she accept being a third wheel invested in the one who’s likely always going to be invested in the other more?
The Sympathy Card may play into convention at the start, but it’s solely to get us on the same page as its lead women. We need to understand their shared dynamic and individual personalities through good times and bad whether that’s via flashback or current events. We need to see how devoted Josie is to their union and how overwhelmingly tired Emma has become via fear (an off-color display at her wedding to shame her mother Margaret, as played by Dorothy Dwyer, shows this all too well). Only then can the easy jokes and inevitable confrontations lead to the complexity Boogie has cooked up for the final act. This is where we see that love doesn’t have rules. Everything is possible (and “normal”) between consenting adults.
Josie’s escapades therefore find themselves destigmatizing a lot of taboo. Whether it’s monogamy versus polyamory or BDSM normalizing from sensationalized “kink” to communication in the bedroom, her journey arrives at places she didn’t think it could and finds itself positioned to supply as much joy as pain—and not necessarily in the ways the plot would appear to foreshadow either. So while characters like Powell and MacFarland have fun on the outside looking in of their sister’s LGBTQ world (stay after the credits for an outtake), Pappas, Gibson, and Neal are here to reveal it’s as boring, dramatic, uncertain, and surprising as their cishet existences. This trio refuses to render their characters’ fateful collision precious and risk negating its messy unpredictability. Love isn’t as simple as Hollywood pretends.
The Sympathy Card plays at the Buffalo International Film Festival.