A nearly perfect movie about a nearly total screw-up, Georgia (Miramax, R) features Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sadie Flood, a would-be rock star doomed to live in the shadow of her sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham), a true rock star. While Georgia has become rich and beloved, with a huge audience for her artfully sung folk-rock ballads, Sadie is perennially destitute, boozing and drugging, always looking for a commercial showcase for her scratchy caterwaul of a hard-rock voice. As Leigh portrays her in a tremendously brave, ferocious performance, Sadie is Roger Clinton crossed with Sid Vicious, born female.
We first glimpse Sadie working as a maid in a motel—she keeps a bottle in her laundry cart, swigging from room to room. She snags a job as a backup vocalist for an R&B performer (played with gruff authenticity by bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon), but when that doesn’t pan out, she straggles out to her sister’s house in rural Washington State. This place is Georgia’s escape from the pressures of stardom and the road; surrounded by farmland, her children, and her husband (Ted Levine), she’s blissfully happy.
Sadie, all smudged mascara, ratty hair, and dirty fingernails, mars this bliss. Half in the bag bright and early, she yammers about drugs while the kids watch her warily over their cereal bowls. Georgia finds her sister’s attempts to flirt with her husband more pathetic than threatening, yet still annoying. Sadie doesn’t mean to, but she just sucks the life out of Georgia. You can see Georgia’s natural ebullience deflate whenever Sadie walks into the room, and you know that it’s been this way between them for a long, long time.
Over the years, Georgia has come to resent Sadie’s lack of discipline and Sadie’s assumption that her wealthy big sister will pull her out of any jam. Sadie, for her part, despises what she sees as Georgia’s serene smugness—she hates the fact that Georgia makes her feel so worthless.
Screenwriter Barbara Turner (TV movies The War Between the Tates and Out of Darkness) — Leigh’s mother — has created a fragile monster for her daughter to portray. This is director Ulu Grosbard’s best film since 1978’s Straight Time, and like his work with Dustin Hoffman in that picture, Grosbard permits Leigh to go to emotional extremes without allowing his actor to tip over into melodrama or self-parody.
Fittingly, the movie’s climax takes place on a stage. Georgia is giving a sold-out concert in Seattle and invites Sadie to do a number in the middle of the show. Before going on, Sadie gets drunk to calm her nerves and reels out to the lip of the stage to sing Van Morrison’s ”Take Me Back.” It’s a long, discursive song anyway, but Sadie turns it into the story of her life, squawking out its lines in agony. Some viewers are going to think this scene is simply too much — Leigh gives it her harrowing all for more than eight minutes — but they have an ally in Georgia, who can’t take it either. When she interrupts what’s meant to be Sadie’s big break to impose control — to ”save” Sadie — the sisters exchange superficially smiling glances that reveal their explosive emotions to us.