The country town of Cedarsville, somewhere in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York state, is the setting for this bizarre tale of love, reincarnation and telepathy across time.
Sadie Stokes (Melissa Leo) is what previous generations would politely term a maiden lady. She has returned to her home town to care for her ailing grandmother Emmeline (played by Le Clanché du Rand) with the help of Vicky (Sabrina Lloyd) and her husband Billy (Jason Downs) and run the local used book store. She is very shy and rather colorless, and most people don't even remember her name. She has a crush on her childhood friend, local handyman Henry Becker (David Strathairn), but is too tongue-tied to say anything. One morning she glimpses a strange man in her mirror, who addresses her as "Anna" and disappears. She begins an obsessive search for the real Anna, who it seems is looking for her as well.
It seems that in the 1860s, Anna was a local woman (also played by Leo) who was engaged to Harry Stokes (also played by Strathairn). When he left to fight in The American Civil War, Anna was pregnant by him. Word came that Harry was dead, but he wasn't, and returned to find Anna married to his cousin Edmund (the man Sadie saw in the mirror, also played by Downs). Harry and Anna both vanished soon after this, causing a huge scandal and leaving little Jack Stokes behind to be raised by Edmund, his mom Oneida (also played by du Rand), and eventually his second wife Helly (also played by Lloyd). But as Sadie and Henry are about to discover, things are not as they seem.
This film provides examples of:
- Arc Words: "There have always been Stokes in Cedarsville."
- Christmas Cake: Both Sadie and Henry. Helly sees herself as this when she proposes to Edmund after Anna disappears; "I've lived too long to be coy."
- Cute Bookworm: Henry is a Civil War expert and is constantly reading books about it. At first, when he tries to make conversation with the mute Sadie, he can only repeat Civil War stories.
- Elective Mute: Sadie, especially when Henry is around. She chatters warmly to her grandmother, who has had a stroke and cannot reply.
- Hot Librarian: Anna literally lets Sadie's hair down when she buys The Dress.
- If It Tastes Bad, It Must Be Good for You: The gossip's liniment. Anna reveals that the gossip is substituting turpentine for the traditional pine wood extract, causing the unbearable stench.
- Please Don't Leave Me: When Harry is stabbed on the battlefield, he says this to Edmund. Edmund runs away, and regrets it for the rest of his life, especially as Harry survives and returns. When Edmund begins to be "haunted" by visions of Sadie (whom he mistakes for Anna) and other things from the modern world, he feels he may have an opportunity to set things right in the future as well as in his own time.
- Scenery Porn: This was shot entirely on location in and around the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley, one of the most beautiful areas in the Southeastern part of the state. (It's the area where the Woodstock festival happened, that was near Bethel.)
- Wholesome Crossdresser: In Anna's time, Mr. Potts (referred to in the credits as "Troll-Man") is a prissy clergyman, married to religious wife Henrietta "who we all knew was a man". In Sadie's time, Potts is now a cross-dressing gay man (or pre-op transgender woman), referred to as "Busy-Body" in the credits, a sympathetic Deadpan Snarker who runs the thrift shop and offers Anna/Sadie the perfect dress. Henrietta is now the gossip, who dresses in overalls and fixes trucks, and takes umbrage at being called a woman. It's not clear if the gossip is a transgender man or a physical male, but he is played by actress Denny Dillon. There's lots of gender bending and stepping outside of gender roles in this story; when we last see Henry's black cousin Fred Ballantine, he's painting his toenails because Victoria is doing Sadie's, while chortling over a reality show where tomboys are given makeovers.Victoria. Nobody's telling RuPaul to take off his dress.
- Widowed at the Wedding: A Civil War story Henry tells. A gun explodes during the wedding of a general's daughter. Nine people are injured, the bride mortally wounded. They go through with the wedding vows, and she dies just after saying "I do."
- Willing Channeler: Sadie likes Anna and is pleased, even amused, when Anna begins taking over.