No one is happy in the hazy, dank world of Megan Griffiths’ trailer-park drama, “Sadie.” But no one is as compelling in their discontent as the eponymous lead, an outcast 13-year-old played by breakout star Sophia Mitri Schloss. Unhappy with her lot in life, she’s ignored at nearly every turn, only finding solace in her doting mother Rae (Melanie Lynskey) and her long-time best pal Francis (Keith L. Williams).
However, Sadie’s fragile existence is made worse by the protracted absence of her father. A daddy’s girl through and through, Sadie is convinced that her soldier dad is the only one who really understands her — not only with their shared interest in gory horror movies, military strategy, and sensible flak jackets, but also in emotions and worldview. That her father has been out of the country and her life, for years (save for his bi-monthly letters) stings Sadie, but what hurts the most is the divide between her parents, one she refuses to accept.
That refusal is the hinge on which the entire movie swings, and when her mother takes up with a new resident at their cozy trailer park Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr., ably hiding some big secrets in his tiny camper), the steadfast teenager moves into psychologically damaging territory. Sadie’s interest in war, violence, and guns takes on a new cast when she hits upon the idea of using those skills to spook Cyrus, preserving her mother for her father’s long-rumored (and never-completed) return.
Schloss compellingly combines the rangy wildness of hormonal teenagehood with Sadie’s more terrifying instincts, toeing the line between pissed-off teen and possible psychopath with ease. Her Sadie is both brutally dead-eyed and weirdly charismatic; you simply can’t turn away from her, even when you really, really want to. Yet Griffiths herself turns away from the big, beating heart of her film, opting to further explore the tribulations of the downtrodden trailer park’s other residents, turning “Sadie” from a canny character study into a soapy slice of blue-collar life.
“Sadie” is populated by people on the fringes, and her characters are entirely defined by the darker edges of their lives. There’s bullied Francis, unlucky-in-love Carla (Danielle Williams), sad-sack visitor Bradley (Tony Hale), and various other drifters and drug addicts who float through the feature. Linked by both personal disappointments and extremely bad decisions, there’s no hope for anyone and while that initially gives the film its dark look and feel, it devolves into a dubious series of forced encounters and betrayals. You can’t trust anyone in “Sadie,” and eventually, you can’t even trust Griffiths to do right by her characters, selling them out to shock and sadness to push along a sagging narrative.
Griffiths has always been aces at casting her films with performers on the cusp of something big and known stars looking to do something different — her 2011 breakout “The Off Hours” offered a juicy role to Amy Seimetz, but it also included parts for such big indie names as Scoot McNairy and even fellow filmmaker Lynn Shelton; her 2013 road trip dramedy “Lucky Them” starred Toni Colette, Thomas Haden Church, and Oliver Platt. Schloss may be the standout in “Sadie,” but she’s surrounded by proven talents like Lynskey and Gallagher, with Brooks and Hale on hand to play inventively against type. The performances are stellar, but much of the screenplay requests its stars to tap into drama that isn’t earned. That they can, and do, is to their credit.
The film’s final act is its most compelling, pushing aside the more contrived twists and steadily ratcheting up the unease as Sadie gives herself over to her obsessions with thrilling commitment. Once again, Sadie becomes the center of a tricky story, and Schloss keeps even the most upsetting character evolutions grounded. Unfortunately, too much of the biggest revelations feel like palmed-off traumas that dilute the real terror of the film, which should be easy enough to focus on; after all, it’s right there in the title.
“Sadie” premiered in the Narrative Competition section of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.