'Sadie': Film Review

Excellent performances and vivid atmosphere compensate for the plot contrivances.

A teenage girl tries to sabotage her mother's new relationship in Megan Griffiths' psychological thriller.

That you can't quite figure what the latest feature from director-screenwriter Megan Griffiths (Lucky Them) is trying to be is both a plus and a minus. Veering uneasily from coming-of-age drama to slow-burn thriller, Sadie doesn't fully convince in either respect. But the film delivers many incisive moments involving the struggles of working-class Americans and features excellent performances from its ensemble, especially Sophia Mitri Schloss in the title role.  

The talented young actress portrays 13-year-old Sadie, who lives with her mother Rae (Melanie Lynskey) in a rundown trailer park. Rae is struggling to make ends meet as a nurse while raising her daughter, who is obsessed with her soldier father who has spent many years in successive tours of duty in Afghanistan. He writes letters bi-weekly to Sadie, who is convinced that he'll soon come home, while essentially ignoring his wife who has failed to move on with her life in any meaningful way.

Rae's inertia ends with the arrival of Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr., HBO's The Newsroom), a handsome and charming neighbor with whom, much to Sadie's outrage, she quickly strikes up a relationship. But the new romance doesn't come without baggage: Cyrus, a former pilot, had his license suspended after a barroom brawl that also resulted in a back injury for which he's become seriously addicted to painkillers.

Sadie, at an age in which she's beginning to experiment with her sexuality with her best friend Francis (Keith L. Williams), has begun exhibiting troubling tendencies. Her obsessions with violent video games and horror films spurs the concern of a school counselor, Bradley (Tony Hale), who also harbors a strong attraction to her mother.

Francis, whose bartender mother Carla (Danielle Brooks) is Rae's best friend, tries to convince Sadie that she should welcome Cyrus' presence in their life because he's a nice guy. "Nice people don't break up families," she retorts icily.

Sadie becomes increasingly obsessed with making sure Cyrus is out of the picture. At first her machinations are relatively harmless, such as when she attempts to serve him a glass of milk laced with Milk of Magnesia. But when she shows up in his trailer and takes off her clothes in an effort to put him in an incriminating position, it becomes evident that she's far more troubled than anyone suspects.

The film suffers from overly melodramatic plotting in the final act that feels contrived. It's far more effective in its quieter, more observational moments, such as its moving depiction of the burgeoning relationship between Rae and Cyrus in which both emotionally damaged people slowly let down their guards, or Bradley's poignant, dawning realization that his hope for being in Rae's life will never be fulfilled. It's the film's adult characterizations that ultimately prove far more interesting than its attempt at showcasing a Bad Seed-style young sociopath.

Griffiths exhibits a strong grasp of tone, filming the proceedings in a visually gloomy fashion befitting the characters' hardscrabble lives. And the performances are uniformly first-rate. It's no surprise that Lynskey, who has quietly establishing herself as one of indie cinema's finest actors, is once again superb in her emotionally complex turn. Gallagher delivers career-best work as well, infusing his portrayal with subtle shadings that keep us intrigued throughout. And Schloss is a revelation as the emotionally disturbed teen, her performance all the more impressive for its restraint.

Production company: Pressing Pictures
Distributor: Electric Dream Factory
Cast: Sophia Mitri Schloss, Melanie Lynskey, John Gallagher Jr., Danielle Brooks, Tony Hale, Keith L. Williams, Tee Dennard
Director-screenwriter: Megan Griffiths
Producers: Lacey Leavitt, Jennessa West
Executive producer: Eliza Shelden
Director of photography: T. J. Williams Jr.
Production designer: Ben Blankenship
Editor: Celia Beasley
Composer: Mike McCready
Costume designer: Rebecca Luke
Casting: Amey Rene

96 minutes