I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Writer-director Megan Griffiths knows how to do harrowing. Her 2013 film, Eden, is a brutal tale of a young woman kidnapped into sex slavery, and what she does to survive. Her latest, Sadie, has a disturbing power that sneaks up on you from an unexpected quarter: that of the moment of a teenaged girl’s crossing the boundary from childhood to too-early adulthood via a path that I cannot recall seeing onscreen before. This is a coming-of-age story that feels at once very universal, about impulses that are deeply rooted crossculturally in human experience and emotion, yet also one very much of its time and place: working-class America in the early 21st century. It’s also a story that, I suspect, would work equally well with a teenaged boy at its center without changing very much at all, but which gets extra unnerving power by casting it as a girl’s journey.
Sadie (Sophia Mitri Schloss) is 13 years old, and missing her father desperately: he is a distant figure on a faraway military deployment, one that he’s been voluntarily reupping for years — it seems as if he may be deliberately staying away. Certainly her mother, Rae (Melanie Lynskey: The Intervention, They Came Together), thinks so, and has long since given up on her marriage. And when Rae starts up a tentative romance with Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Belko Experiment), a new neighbor in their Pacific Northwest trailer park, Sadie is incensed on her father’s behalf. Dad is no more a presence than the occasional letter — to Sadie only, never to Rae — but he looms in Sadie’s psyche like the intense imaginary friends that much younger children often have… though how Sadie comes to her father’s “defense” echoes unsettling teenaged behavior that we’ve become sadly all too familiar with in recent years. Sadie slyly slides into the suggestion that endless war cannot help but infect civilian life by normalizing violent responses to any perceived threat.
Griffiths masterfully balances many grim motifs to achieve a precarious balance representing Sadie’s teenaged confusion and the social turmoil she wades through every day. Bullying at school — where she defends her friend Francis (Keith L. Williams) from bigger, meaner boys — and her own violent imagination, fueled by the casual cruelty she witnesses around her. The desperation of the adults in her life: her mother’s loneliness; Cyrus’s addiction to illegally acquired painkillers, the result of a chronic injury he cannot afford to see a doctor about. There’s a lot going on here, and yet Sadie — a favorite at both the Seattle International Film Festival and SXSW earlier this year — never feels like it has taken on too much. It feels, instead, like it is weighted down with all the many troubles of its characters, troubles that are interconnected symptoms of a society that is quietly yet inexorably on the verge of collapse even as everyone is scrambling to hold their own and everyone else’s shit together.
The terrific cast also features Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks as Rae’s best friend (and Francis’s mom) Carla; in a small yet vital role, she brings together contradictory notes of an everyday anguish endured through everyday kindnesses, and in a rare way that elevates a secondary character from mere support to one who underscores everything the film wants to say. But Schloss is the film’s anchor, and she is extraordinary, seething with rage about adult behavior she cannot quite understand… a rage that is perhaps partly powered by that terrible dawning in adolescence, the knowledge that grownups are just as flummoxed by life, just as at the mercy of outside forces, as kids are.
Sadie is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for October 12th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.