At the beginning of a movie, you look for little indicators that you’re in good hands. It could be a neatly-choreographed action scene, an actor’s brilliant monologue, or a fantastic “How did they do that?” camera move.
In Sadie, I got that feeling from a plate of Ritz crackers. We’ve just met the 13-year-old title character (played by Sophia Mitri Schloss) in the trailer park where she lives, along with her school chum Francis (the wonderfully deadpan Keith L. Williams) and his laid-back grandfather (Tee Dennard). Francis disappears into a trailer and reappears a minute later carrying the tray of crackers (can’t swear it’s Ritz, could possibly be Cheez-Its), which he offers to his pals. No one calls attention to this, or makes a joke of it; it stays in the background, and it tells you something about Francis, and the community in the park, and that somebody behind the camera has an eye for details.
In this case the eye behind the camera belongs to Seattle writer/director Megan Griffiths, whose previous films include Eden and Lucky Them. In Sadie, Griffiths takes a potentially standard coming-of-age setting and gradually bends it into something odd and troubling. This film, no matter how its Ritz-cracker details ring true, plays as a kind of dark, slightly unreal fairy tale—like a Roald Dahl yarn where the kids take things just a little too far for comfort. Sadie is a heroine who won’t allow you to make easy conclusions about her ferocious will.
She lives with her mom Rae (Melanie Lynskey, authentic as always), and entertains hopes that her father will soon return from his overseas military duty, which has stretched to four years now. Rae does not share this hope, and has allowed Sadie’s nerdy school administrator (Tony Hale, from Veep) to court her. A newcomer to the community, Cyrus (John Gallagher, Jr., lately seen in The Miseducation of Cameron Post), presents a much more attractive potential suitor, something Sadie is especially furious about. The excellent main cast is rounded out by Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), as Francis’s mother and Rae’s friend, a bartender who—like most of the characters here—means well but screws up.
This drama is played out in a damp town that could be anywhere in Western Washington, suitably accompanied by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready’s score. Any danger that Sadie could go the way of an after school special disappears in Griffiths’ non-melodramatic style, which allows revelations about Sadie’s antisocial behavior to roll out in casually disturbing ways. This kid is smart, sarcastic, and bossy, and we want to root for her, except it isn’t that easy. In the remarkable performance by Sophia Mitri Schloss (who also starred in Lane 1974 by local director S.J. Chiro), Sadie’s determined stare could burn a hole through her perceived opponents. At times Griffiths slows the film down so we can simply watch Sadie think, which is appropriate for a movie about a girl who regularly—if not always accurately—observes others. The time allows us to get inside Sadie’s head, and the more you do, the sadder you get.