Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a boozy mess in this underrated ’90s drama

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Siblings Week at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about sisters.

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Georgia (1995)

About a half-hour into Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia, Sadie Flood (Jennifer Jason Leigh) opens her door to Axel (Max Perlich), a kind-faced, 23-year-old grocery delivery boy. Axel tallies up the numbers for Sadie’s bill: The food comes out to a paltry $4.53, but the booze is going to run her $36.60. In most movies, this would be enough information to establish the protagonist’s instability, but Sadie’s just getting started. After she pays the bill, Axel stays behind and confesses his love to her (he recognizes her from the dive-bar music circuit); Sadie pours herself a drink, accepts his company, and before long finds herself married to Axel. This messy, whirling-dervish rhythm has long become the standard speed of Sadie’s life—the opening-credits sequence alone details her introduction to and eventual falling out with a paranoid blues musician (Jimmy Witherspoon, in a cameo)—and Sadie’s family is at a loss as to how to deal with her.

That family principally includes her sister, Georgia (an Oscar-nominated Mare Winningham), and Georgia’s husband, Jake (Ted Levine). In a welcome twist, the stable, rational, glasses-wearing Georgia is the through-the-roof folk celebrity, while the rough, punkish Sadie has to perform back-up vocals in random settings (bowling alleys, Jewish weddings) to support herself. (She often can’t even handle this second-tier work: Her gig at the wedding is cut short after a bathroom swig of NyQuil leaves her nauseous and unfocused.) Collectively, the bundle of accessories Sadie wears—bracelets, necklaces, rings, gobs of eyeliner—probably weighs as much as she does, and while this image might possess a bad-girl allure if Sadie were famous, watching her perform this role with Georgia and Jake as her only remaining audience is miserable. In a pair of early kitchen scenes, Georgia and Jake both use their time alone with Sadie to show her some comfort, but their concern and even bitterness toward her can’t help but seep through, whether through startlingly frank declarations (“You can’t feel what I’m feeling. You aren’t me,” says Georgia) or defensive body language.

Grosbard, who died in 2012, racked up some serious credentials as a theater director in his lifetime, but his movies have been perennially underrated. Given his background, it’s no surprise that one of his greatest traits is his sensitivity with actors—True Confessions and Falling In Love contain two of the softest performances Robert De Niro has ever given—and Georgia is no exception, with Leigh, Winningham, and Levine all sliding into their roles with complex compassion and unforced warmth. Leigh, working from a screenplay written by her mother (Barbara Turner), invests Sadie with constant, unrelenting fits of physical motion: When she’s not performing or frantically scurrying around a room, she’s curled up on the couch smoking a cigarette and fidgeting with a glass. Leigh’s turn climaxes with a desperate, quivering rendition of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back”—her arms flying around, her hazel eyes succumbing to tears—that illustrates Sadie in one painful, unforgettable nutshell.

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Availability: Georgia is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It is also currently streaming on Netflix and can be rented or purchased through the major digital services.

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