In Racing Daylight, Melissa Leo’s performance as Sadie is one of the most awkward, albeit memorable, performances I’ve ever witnessed by an actress on screen. One can’t help but cringe when she’s in the presence of her crush, handyman Henry (played effortlessly by the down-to-earth David Strathairn). She literally can’t speak when he tries to converse with her; she only smiles. Only in private moments do we see her truly be herself, even if she is just in her own little world and not in close company. Sans makeup, Sadie is aged and homely, but her giddiness in the fantasy realm renders her childlike.
When Sadie isn’t confusing the locals with her inelegant demeanor, she keeps to herself at home while taking care of her bedridden grandmother. But her fantasies kick into high gear when she sees a mysterious male figure appear in her mirror one morning. She soon realizes that he’s part of her family’s rocky history dating back to the Civil War era where life mildly parallels Sadie’s life in the present. Sadie’s obsession with her ancestor Annie leads her to believe that she actually is her long-gone relative and begins aggressively pursuing Henry (making for even more awkward encounters). What does Annie have to do with Henry? Nothing, except that Henry closely resembles Harry, Annie’s love during the war.
You can tell that Racing Daylight is an indie judging by its repetitive musical score (somebody’s rocking a violin like it’s nobody’s business) and sparse collection of props. The used bookstore where Sadie works contains only one or two shelving units and a couple of small tables adorned with random literature. There’s even a space devoted as a “Computer Center”, but I only saw one computer: one of those half-clear, half-colored Macintosh desktops that were popular in the late 90s. I could easily make a joke about this, but in all honesty, the minimal objects are part of Racing Daylight’s charm. Besides, with such an impressive cast and an intricate story, one’s attention can only be focused on a Mac computer for so long.
The clever parallels are a high point of this film, and writer/director Nicole Quinn keeps Racing Daylight busy and multi-dimensional by having the story told through the eyes of other characters, not just Sadie. It’s easy to get confused as the scriptnavigates from the 1860s to the present day. But I don’t mind re-watching Melissa Leo and David Strathairn time travel.
A final thought: just when I thought Sadie was the odd one, Quinn gives Henry the spotlight to let his personality shine in the final segment. I wasn’t expecting Henry to stare right at me from the screen while telling his side in between a random sharing of historical facts. Uncomfortable, entertaining, or weird? I say all three. There’s a lesson to be learned from watching Racing Daylight, folks: everyone has their quirks. I’d like to think that by embracing these characters, I’m one step closer to embracing my own eccentricities