Every few weeks, 13-year-old Sadie (Sophia Mitri Schloss) receives a letter from her father, typically full of broken promises about his eventual return home from overseas and inappropriately vivid details about his experiences as a soldier. He may appear on screen only as a photo taped to the wall next to Sadie’s bed, but his absence looms large in the Midwestern trailer park where Sadie lives with her loving but often busy, distracted mother, Rae (Melanie Lynskey). While Sadie still worships her father, pining for his return and a sense of normalcy in her life, Rae has gradually allowed herself to move on from her constantly re-upping husband after years of neglect.
Megan Griffiths’s Sadie attentively charts the ebbs and flows of this oft-strained mother-daughter relationship, presenting the conflicts that arise from Sadie’s burgeoning sexuality clashing with her mother’s attempts to find emotional and sexual satisfaction outside of her marriage. Griffith’s restrained direction, driven by long handheld shots that give the film a stark sense of realism, taps into the stresses caused both by alienation and poverty.
Sadie, at once precocious and endlessly frustrated, is often framed as an outsider wherever she goes. Throughout, the girl watches others as if unsure of how to assert herself, both at school, where she keeps close tabs on the punk kid who bullies her only friend, Francis (Keith L. Williams), and at home, where her observant, often judgmental gaze lands on her mother’s potential suitors: Bradley (Tony Hale), Sadie’s nebbish, fawning school counselor, and Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.), a charming and handsome new neighbor.
Sadie’s angst initially materializes through snide comments, but slowly and almost imperceptibly begins taking the form of nefarious acts. As the young girl’s frustrations become increasingly unbearable, Griffiths ping pongs between Sadie and Rae as they each strive, often in opposition, to make the most of their hardscrabble lives. Sadie’s immaturity and obstinacy are further revealed in the increasingly brutish manner in which she handles the males in her life. While her dealings with Francis’s bully exhibit a tenaciousness that feels organic, albeit supremely misguided, her tactics in attempting to push Cyrus out of the picture intensify to the point of absurdity, becoming so extreme that they betray the film’s well-established sense of realism.
But even as such narrative bits of business become increasingly implausible and result in an excessively knotty narrative, Sadie remains a clear-eyed portrait of maternal love, teenage turmoil, and the singular type of tight-knit bonds formed, out of necessity in many cases, in low-income communities. Sadie’s friendship with the younger Francis, though a bit precious at times, offers some timely comic relief along with a clearer sense of the girl’s inability to connect with most kids her own age, while her witty exchanges with one of the trailer park’s older residents, Deak (Tee Dennard), crystallizes her desperation for a father figure. And it’s through Sadie’s interactions with these ancillary characters, including Deak’s daughter, Carla (Danielle Brooks), that Griffiths is able to balance the film’s more grim tendencies with a quotidian tenderness that keeps it grounded in a lived-in authenticity.