There's a dark cloud that hangs over the majority of Sadie – the latest feature from writer/director Megan Griffiths (Eden) – and everything just feels cold in this Midwestern trailer park. Sadie (Sophia Mitri Schloss) hasn't seen her dad in over four years, as he's been deployed to Afghanistan, possibly to avoid both she and her mother (but he would never do that, right?). When she's not at school, the thirteen-year-old carves little wooden figurines while sitting in a lawn chair next to Deak (Tee Dennard) – the self-described "old coot" who lives with his daughter Carla (Danielle Brooks) – or hangs out with his grandson Francis (Keith L. Williams), an adorable little boy who unfortunately gets pushed around at school. We can feel a tinge of melancholy radiating off the girl, but she'll never let it bring her down completely. Like her dad, Sadie’s a soldier, and soldiers are tough, after all.
Sadie probably would've been able to survive these dreary days unscathed had it not been for two men moving in on her mom (Melanie Lynskey). Well, one – her guidance counselor Bradley (Tony Hale) – really isn't much of a threat. Her assessment of the target boils him down to being a beta boy she can basically punk via a meeting she arranges with Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.), timing it so Bradley arrives on their doorstep just when this new guy – who moved into the park and is always working on his truck – is just on his way out. She knows that Bradley's little heart will break, and he'll retreat to his office in her shitty school to review some more complaints about her peers. However, Cyrus isn't going to go down without a fight, and she needs to start exploiting his weaknesses – namely: illegal prescription pills he constantly pops for his bad back – to her advantage.
Now, the above could admittedly read like the set up for a Judd Apatow comedy, just as easily as it does a creepy thriller. But Griffiths treats Sadie like a slow-burn character study, as Schloss brings the titular tiny sociopath to life with rather intimidating ease. The young actress lets us see the girl's eyes flicker as she graduates to greater degrees of evil with her misdeeds, which in turn start out minor, but then hint toward possible full-scale violence and murder. Yet the writer/director is keen to keep it all grounded, her script allowing the girl to easily explain her rather nefarious actions away as if they were mere juvenile pranks. In-between, Sadie experiments with Francis to see if kissing feels good, coming of age in the same fashion most kids do while indulging this festering need to meddle and manipulate in her mother's life, just so she remains "faithful and honorable" toward Sadie's father.
Simultaneously, Melanie Lynskey reminds us of what a treasure she is in any movie, creating this ball of raw concern in Sadie's mom, Rae. She doesn't like Bradley "that way", but the interest he shows in her daughter's social and educational development is always positive and warns her of any trouble down the road, so it’s tough to cut him off. And while Cyrus is nice, and she enjoys how much effort he puts into just getting know her somewhat closed off kid, those pills are a big concern. Sure, he can talk about being stupid in a bar fight and how those days are behind him all he wants, but as a nurse Rae knows dependency when she sees it, and Cyrus is indeed an addict. Lynskey always keeps the mother subtly on guard, even when she's at her most vulnerable (as she knows Sadie's dad is never coming back and certainly gets lonely, too). It's an incredibly nuanced performance, full of strength and gentle grace, to balance Schloss' equally impressive casual coldness.
Griffiths builds not so much to a crescendo, but instead the moment where Sadie could cross the line and be lost forever to the strange deeds she thinks her heart desires (and her dad would approve of). How the movie ends is one of its strongest elements, as the writer/director isn't afraid to have her characters make decisions that are somewhat unexpected, but still feel totally organic in the moment. Sadie is a very strong little drama, showcasing an artist totally in control of the story she wants to tell, and how the actors who've chosen to take this journey with her inhabit these dark, uncomfortable days. It's a movie that sits in your stomach long after you've left the theater, an uneasy calmness that washes over you, courtesy of its unfeeling main character.