SIFF 2018: Writer/director Megan Griffiths on ‘Sadie’

Sophia Mitri Schloss in 'Sadie.'

The title character in Sadie, played by Sophia Mitri Schloss (who made her debut in the SIFF 2017 hit Lane 1974), is an adolescent girl coping with life in a trailer park and the absence of her serviceman father, who’s been overseas for years serving in Afghanistan.

Sadie lives in denial of the massive emotional and physical distance that’s developed between her absent father and her weary mom Rae (Melanie Lynskey). And when Rae stumbles into a romance with charming hard-luck case Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.), Sadie begins using increasingly extreme tactics to diffuse the nascent affair and drag her dad back into the picture.

The movie marks another great character study from writer/director Megan Griffiths, and it centers on one of Griffiths’ most riveting characters. Sadie’s an awkward, misanthropic, acerbically witty kid who’s sympathetic and sociopathic at equal turns, and she’s brought to vivid life by Mitri Schloss’s remarkable performance. But the movie’s also a trenchant indictment of the might-makes-right mindset that can be tinder to the spark of adolescent angst, and a wry ensemble piece that balances its dark places with a gallery of flawed but incredibly likable characters.

Griffiths talked about the long odyssey to bring Sadie to cinematic life and the underlying themes that roil beneath the movie’s surface.

After all the high-profile films and TV you’ve done lately, Sadie feels like a return to the more intimate territory of your first film, The Off Hours. Is that a fair assessment?
Very fair. I think that they’re both the most closely related films in my filmography. I started writing The Off Hours in 2003 and Sadie in 2009, while I was trying to get The Off Hours made. But it always kept getting put aside for other projects. Every time I’ve made something in the last eight years, the thing I always tell people is, “My next project is Sadie!” so I’m happy to finally have made the darn thing.

Was there anything that drove your need to complete Sadie besides the desire to tell an interesting story?
It was more about the need to tell a story that contributed to the cultural conversation in a way that was meaningful. I had written Sadie because I wanted to think and talk about power imprinting on the kids of this society, in terms of how we solve our problems as adults and as a country. That conversation’s always felt relevant—and it’s become increasingly relevant recently.

The characters in the movie are extremely flawed, and a lot of them—from Sadie on down—do some pretty lousy things. Yet you still like them.
I’m glad you feel that way. Not everyone does [laughs]. But there’s always been a strong through-line running through my work that centers around the idea that nobody considers themselves a villain or a bad guy. Everybody’s got reasons for what they do. I’m not trying to make excuses for people, but by treating the characters with some respect, I can get an audience to watch and care about these people who they might otherwise judge.

Sophia Mitri Schloss is remarkable in the lead. Did you work much with her to craft the character, or did she just take to it naturally?
She is really, really good, which made my life very easy. She definitely understood the character and never looked at Sadie from a place of judgment. She just sunk right into it. She’s much lighter and sweeter, and a lot more well-rounded, than the character. But her empathy gene is strong, and she had no problem just embodying this person. Melanie Lynskey would always say it was like working with a peer and not working with a kid.

We didn’t cast Sadie until right before shooting began, because we wanted to make she was just the actual age of the character. In the last eight years that I’ve been trying to get Sadie made, I’ve seen several kids who I wanted to play Sadie age out of the role. Some of the actors I had in mind are now voting and drinking legally!

You’ve always been fiercely loyal to the Seattle filmmaking community and fly your Pacific Northwest flag high. Did this film include a similar ratio of local cast and crew?
Yeah. There are a lot of familiar faces in this crew. I’d never worked with my new Director of Photography T.J. Williams Jr. in a director/DP relationship before, but he and I still go back a ways. We spent a lot of time together on other people’s sets over the last decade, when I was assistant-directing and he was an assistant cameraman.

You’ve also consistently championed increasing women’s prominence in the film industry and have infused your films with diversity. That’s especially prominent in Sadie. There are a lot of women in front of and behind the camera, and a third of your protagonists are well-rounded, engaging characters who happen to be African-American.
I’ve always been an advocate for women in film for selfish reasons: because I want women to have a stronger voice in this industry, and also because I am a woman in this industry. I had 50 percent women on this crew. And there are a lot of stories that need to be heard and told by people who’ve experienced them. How can I make this world [of Sadie] feel like the real world that we all live in, and not just a story about a bunch of white people?

Sadie screens Sunday, May 27 and Wednesday, June 6 at SIFF.

This article has been edited.