American Woman

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Jake Scott

Starring

Aaron Paul Christina Hendricks Sienna Miller

Anticipation.

It’s rare that a film with “American” in the title is very good.

Enjoyment.

A weird, scenic ride, with Sienna Miller acting her socks off in the lead.

In Retrospect.

Eventually can’t decide what type of film it is, but all the more interesting for it.

A star turn from Sienna Miller powers this poignant blue-collar drama from writer/director Jake Scott.

This is an intriguing and strange film, one which uses a simple narrative bait-and-switch technique to consistently confound expectation. It lures and lures and lures, and then jolts off in a completely different direction. From the outset, it appears entirely run-of-the-mill: Sienna Miller is Debra Callahan, a boisterous party girl and grandmother at 32, living in a seen-better-days tract house and scrabbling to make ends meet in always overcast rural Pennsylvania.

Her life is a juggling act, as she drops her grandson off with sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) so she can dash off to job number one while her daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), does the same. It introduces itself as a film about the realities of poverty row America, but is also about how a lack of wealth and opportunity doesn’t always lead to abject depression, despite the fact that these conditions make basic survival that much tougher.

Debra is perky and hopeful, even though there is no obvious way out for her. In fact, there’s no sense that she even wants out – basic comfort would be just fine for her. And at the moment you start to ponder where all this could be headed, the first big twist kicks in: Debra wakes up one morning and Bridget is nowhere to be found. The police stumble onto the scene, and dutiful locals comb the landscape, but there’s nothing to be done. Fingers are twiddled ruefully, and Debra rages as the cops look solemn and helpless, chalking this up as another unsolved missing person case to toss on the pile.

Director Jake Scott opts for a no frills approach to the drama, and wisely leans on his game ensemble for various moments of high domestic tension. The writing and social commentary are solid, yet this is Miller’s showcase through-and-through, and might even be considered a capstone for a run of excellent supporting roles in which she plays the unflappable wife to a rogue’s gallery of deranged maniacs – from grappling with her PTSD’d hubby in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, through to stepping in as steadfast love of Charlie Hunnam’s tally ho dreamer in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z.

Her robust, thoughtful, underplayed character work is what makes time spent in her company more than worthwhile. Her dynamic range is extensive, and just as the plot seems to jackknife at a moment’s notice, so too does Miller go from nought to 60 in a matter of milliseconds. As the story rolls on and the updates on Bridget’s potential whereabouts dry up, the film shifts once more, and suddenly Debra finds some semblance of peace.

The film isn’t saying that the working classes are somehow callous or indifferent when it comes to this type of awful situation, but it does make the point that there comes a time to stitch the tatters of your life back together, and it happens here when Debra’s tear ducts have just about run dry.

Perhaps in the end it’s a little too insistent on delivering conventional closure, and the final act is something of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Whether this is an indie break-out or not, it’s more evidence that Miller has managed to transcend her early ’00s “It girl” status to become one of the most interesting and emotionally invested character actors on the circuit.

Published 8 Oct 2019

Tags: Aaron Paul Christina Hendricks Jake Scott Sienna Miller Sky Ferreira

Anticipation.

It’s rare that a film with “American” in the title is very good.

Enjoyment.

A weird, scenic ride, with Sienna Miller acting her socks off in the lead.

In Retrospect.

Eventually can’t decide what type of film it is, but all the more interesting for it.

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