NOTE: THIS CRITIQUE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.
Sadie begins and ends with the title character (Sophia Mitri Schloss) providing voice-over to a letter she’s written her dad, who is serving overseas. In between is a film with a multi-dimensional and troubled character at its center.
I don’t know than any man could’ve written this tale, or directed it as well. Megan Griffiths, who did both, allows us to empathize with all her characters, even as we begin to realize, long before they do, that something is wrong with Sadie. In idolizing her dad and the violence that surrounds him, in being old enough to be intelligent without being wise, she mistakenly feels that she can solve her problems (and those of her friends) in unsettling ways without adverse consequences. Plus, hormones.
Witness, for example, the way she helps her best friend Francis (Keith L. Williams) with Jesse (Justin Thomas Howell), a bully at school. First, she steals Jesse’s phone and links an easily traceable bomb threat to it, resulting in detention for him. Then, when he finds out about the phone and threatens Francis (thinking he’s the one who sent the message), Sadie emotionally manipulates him into thinking Francis might go on a Columbine rampage if bullied any more, and even shows him a gun she supposedly found in Francis’s backpack (actually one of her dad’s). When she later shows Francis the gun and he worries that Jesse might report them, Sadie says, “For what? You didn’t do anything. Besides, the gun isn’t loaded.”
Notice the logic here. Sadie can’t see beyond the solution she’s hoping to achieve. Yes, Jesse gets a detention in the first instance, but the bomb threat goes on his permanent record (Sadie dismisses Francis when he mentions this, saying, “We’re kids, Francis. Nobody cares what we do.”). And the threat of violence terrorizes Jesse more than he’s terrorized Frances.
This inability to see the consequences of her actions, other that the desired result, plays out again in the main story, when she is upset at her mom (Melanie Lynskey) for dating a handsome new neighbor named Cyrus (John Gallagher, Jr). These feelings are enhanced by her own feelings for him, combined with her loyalty to her dad and her wish for them all to be a family again. First she tries to slip milk of magnesium into his milk (he doesn’t drink it). Then, when it seems her dad will be coming home for good, she tries to trap him in a compromising position. When that doesn’t work, she resorts to more drastic measures.
Those drastic measures go much further than the solution Sadie had in mind. She wants to harm Cyrus, but she mistakenly thinks she’s in control of the situation and that the amount of harm she can cause is negligible because she’s a kid. Again, she is more intelligent than wise. She only thinks of getting him out of the picture so that her dad can come back to them. But when she discovers that isn’t going to happen, she finally realizes the true weight of what she’s done.
Griffiths is wise to not show Sadie as psychologically damaged or otherwise out of the ordinary. That is not to say that every teenage girl is dangerous, but that they can be without proper guidance and awareness of their power to hurt. This element is what makes the film so unsettling, along with its soundtrack (by Mike McCready).
Still, the movie isn’t without its flaws. John Gallagher, Jr. acts too much with his teeth, lips, and tongue for my taste, and the final letter Sadie writes to her dad falls flat. I’m also not a fan of whisper acting, which Schloss employs too often, especially during the voice-overs. Finally, the movie meanders into clichéd plot devices near its conclusion.
There’s a scene near the beginning of this film that bears mentioning. Francis’s grandfather, Deak (Tee Dennard), spends his time sitting outside and whittling wood carvings. One afternoon, Sadie joins him and begins to carve Cyrus’s face. Deak notices this and tells her she should start with something easier, like animals. “Men are hard,” he says. Sadie shows that young girls can be harder.
Sadie plays as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey tomorrow at 2:30 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and again at the same location on Wednesday, June 6 at 6:45.