Sadie Sink continues her impressive rise playing the lead in this tender drama about a teen dealing with emotional turmoil following a family tragedy.
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Sadie Sink clearly is a young actress on the rise. After garnering raves as tough girl Max on “Stranger Things,” she will likely get an Oscar nomination for her stellar work in “The Whale,” which most people will have to wait till next month to see in theaters.
(I’ve already seen it, and and she will. Write. It. Down.)
Meanwhile, she gets her first leading role in “Dear Zoe,” a tender indie drama as a strong-willed young woman dealing with the trauma after the loss of her younger sister. It’s a gripping, emotionally resonant performance that, along with a couple of strong supporting actors and the sure hand of director Gren Wells, buoys the film over a few rough patches in the writing. (Screenplay by Marc Lhormer and Melissa Martin, based on the 2005 novel by Philip Beard).
It opens in select theaters and the streaming service Vudu Nov. 4.
Sink plays Tess DeNunzio, an almost-17-year-old living in a privileged suburban world in the Pittsburgh area. As the story opens, the family lost its youngest child, Zoe (Mckenzie Noel Rusiewicz), in a fairly recent unnamed tragedy — for which Tess blames herself. Compounding her guilt, the accident happened on Sept. 11, 2001, so Zoe’s death was essentially rendered an invisible event.
Her mother (Jessica Capshaw) is spiraling into despair, barely able to rise from the couch. Zoe is distant from her stepfather (Justin Bartha), an uptight lawyer type, though she dotes on the middle sister (Vivien Lyra Blair). She feels simultaneously isolated and put-upon, and just needs a break from the family dynamic to find her space to heal.
She decides to seek it with her father, Nick (Theo Rossi), who lives in the gritty part of Pittsburgh and makes an itinerant living in construction or as a cook. Currently he isn’t doing much of anything, other than dealing a little weed to his friends. But Nick decides to put his meager life on hold to be there for his kid.
Rossi, who was also really good in “Emily the Criminal” from earlier this year, is quietly becoming one of my favorite “that guy” character actors. With Arab, Latino, Black and European roots, he can play all sorts of nationalities and shades of morality. Here he’s a guy who seems upbeat and means to do well, but has a tendency to slide into black moods of self-loathing and hopelessness.
With Zoe’s return, he sees a chance to redeem himself as a father and provider. Rossi’s scenes with Sink sing with authenticity and a bond long neglected, new regrowing.
She also forms a quick connection with Jimmy, the tattooed bad (maybe?) boy living next door. Zoe is put off by his loud rap music and thuggish cues, but is clearly smitten with his brooding good looks. They argue a little, which turns into bantering flirtation, which turns into something maybe deeper.
Jimmy is played by Kweku Collins, who displays oodles of screen presence and natural charm. He makes us see what Zoe does in him. We think it’s going to be a typical story about two kids from opposite sides of the tracks falling for each other, but the actors help us appreciate the individual specialness of their attraction.
The movie could have done a better job of tying in the mood of the post-9/11 period with Zoe’s turmoil. Instead, it tends to suddenly reappear and recede in our attention. Nick is raising a litter of German Shepherd puppies to sell — another one of his side hustles — and Zoe asks to keep one, dubbing him Colin Powell.
Wells impresses in her second feature film in the director’s chair. Some of the dialogue and individual scenes are written in a rather clunky way, with a character suddenly veering off to the left for no apparent reason. She keeps the actors on point and in the moment, so they always seem present even if the words come out of their mouths in a bit of a tumble. Wells and the cast elevate the material beyond what’s on the page.
Mostly, “Dear Zoe” works as a showcase for the sensational Sink. With her fiery hair and clear blue eyes, she could’ve been content to be typecast playing willowy sweet girls. Instead, she seeks out nettlesome roles playing complicated young women with flaws and pent-up hostility. Watch this one.