The eponymous protagonist at the chilly heart of “Sadie” is a troubled 13-year-old girl who is driven to extremes by her unyielding notions about what constitutes loyalty. Of course, Sadie — rivetingly played with tamped-down intensity by newcomer Sophia Mitri Schloss — would no doubt dispute that description, if only because it implies she’s not in full control of her actions at every moment. She’d have you know that if anyone or anything is doing any driving, well, she’s the one at the wheel. Equal parts coming-of-age story and slow-burn thriller, writer-director Megan Griffiths’ quietly absorbing and methodically disquieting drama is a genuine rarity: a sympathetic portrait of a budding sociopath.
Sadie lives with Rae (Melanie Lynskey), her mother, in a dreary Midwestern trailer park where, sooner or later, everybody knows everybody else’s business. (The wintery cinematography of T.J. Williams Jr. accentuates the overall air of dead-end gloom.) Perpetually sullen, Sadie nonetheless nurses a fierce affection for her faraway father, a solider she hasn’t seen during the several years he has pulled multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. She treasures the letters she receives from him, and romanticizes dad as a hero, making excuses for him whenever Rae notes that she hasn’t received any mail from him in a very long time.
Strictly speaking, Sadie isn’t a loner. Indeed, she’s downright affable with at least two of her neighbors: Deak (Tee Dennard), a self-described “old coot” who encourages her woodcarving, and his daughter, Carla (Danielle Brooks), a sassy bartender who’s Rae’s friend and confidante. Francis (Keith L. Williams), Carla’s young son, is Sadie’s classmate and, apparently, only friend. Although they tentatively share a kiss or two — they’re at the age when lust is less a factor in such situations than simple curiosity — Sadie doesn’t want a boyfriend; rather, she wants someone to protect. The first time she defends Francis against a bothersome bully, she pulls the kind of clever trick that might generate laughs in a routine teen-skewing comedy. When she deals with the bully a second time, however, the laughter catches in your throat.
Sadie is obsessed with violent video games — a cliché, perhaps, but Griffith shakes the cobwebs right off it — and she writes essays laced with descriptions of bloody mayhem (clearly wish-dreams of her father’s battlefield valor) that upset, among other people, Bradley (Tony Hale), her school’s guidance counselor. His disapproval is one of the reasons why Sadie can barely contain her contempt for the guy. The other, more important reason: Bradley, sensing Rae’s discontented loneliness, has been dropping by the trailer park far too often for Sadie’s taste.
As it turns out, much to Sadie’s smug satisfaction, Rae doesn’t want anything from Bradley other than casual friendship. (And that’s not surprising: If “Sadie” were a ’30s screwball comedy, Bradley would be played by Ralph Bellamy.) Unfortunately, Rae is appreciably less resistant to the charms of Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.), a newcomer to the trailer park. Sadie soon realizes that, in order to guarantee that her mother remains faithful to her father, she must respond decisively and, if necessary, ruthlessly.
Prior to “Sadie,” Griffith’s most notable credits as an indie filmmaker have been “Eden” (2012), her award-winning drama about a young Korean-American woman (Jamie Chung) enslaved by human traffickers, and “Lucky Them” (2013), a lightly enjoyable comedy about a career-stalled rock journalist (Toni Collette). Her latest film, a worthy addition to her oeuvre, also pivots on a vividly rendered female lead, and Schloss is excellent in the role.
The big difference here is that there’s also second, equally strong female character who vies for our attention. Lynskey compellingly conveys each of the attributes — loving concern, embittered resentment, maternal fretfulness, emotional neediness — that define Rae as an individual. Better still, she underscores just how much mother has in common with daughter. Rae is a trained nurse, and fully recognizes what Cyrus is risking as he takes unprescribed medication to cope with pain caused by a back injury. Nonetheless, love (or something like it) keeps her loyal beyond reason.
Ultimately, Rae’s bad judgment proves far less alarming than Sadie’s coldblooded manipulation. Throughout most of the movie, the girl sports a pullover hat that gives her a vaguely androgynous look. Twice, however, she literally lets her hair down, and the impact is startling: On both occasions — especially the second — Sadie clearly is exploiting her nascent sexuality to intimidate.
Here and elsewhere, Griffith and Schloss tease and disquiet you with the possibility that Sadie will stop at nothing to get what she wants. But even that’s not sufficient to fully prepare you for what happens when they make good on that threat. Or for what happens next.