American Woman | Jake Scott | June 14, 2019
Director Jake Scott shows the longstanding effects of grief and finding independence in a world that forces a woman to rely on unreliable men in his harrowing film American Woman. It’s an acting showcase for star Sienna Miller, whose agent should be making an FYC push come awards season for her powerful and striking lead performance that I sadly feel will go overlooked not only come at the end of the year but right now.
It’s 2003 in a small Pennsylvania town, and we see the life of 32-year-old single mother Debra Callahan (Sienna Miller; The Lost City of Z), who lives with her teenage daughter Bridget (pop singer-actress Sky Ferreira; The Green Inferno), who is raising her newborn Jesse. Bridget goes out on a date with Jesse’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter; the upcoming Low Tide) and has Debra babysit Jesse for the night. But Bridget never comes home, and Debra finds out from a friend of Bridget’s that she was supposed to walk home. Fearing the worst, she immediately turns to her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and brother-in-law Terry (Will Sasso) in a desperate search for her daughter. It’s not until the arrival of Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) that the severity of the situation truly hits home when large organized search parties don’t turn up any trace of Bridget (somewhat similar to last year’s Searching).
Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay shifts several years ahead, with Debra raising Jesse and continuing to date abusive men, such as Tim (Pat Healy) – more so for the financial support than any kind of real romance. Debra has a hard time setting down due to her frequent affairs with married men and an overall promiscuous nature around the town. The reality that she will probably never see Bridget again has sunk in by this point, but the family still holds out some hope that she is out there somewhere. In the meantime, she essentially takes over as Jesse’s mom and tries to do right by him with visits to see his father Tyler, whose life took a hit after the false accusations that he was the one responsible for Bridget’s disappearance.
Debra gets a rare glimmer of hope in a newfound relationship with the good-natured Chris (Aaron Paul) who finally gives her and Jesse the stability that they have been lacking all this time. Yet she still realizes that she can no longer trust or rely on other men or forces in her life to do right by her or Jesse, and it becomes abundantly clear that this film is about this woman’s perseverance through all of the unfair obstacles that life has thrown at her.
Scott doesn’t go for an overly flashy style, instead using the small town nature to frame the everyday American life that Debra experiences, one that revolves around family and friends as her major lifeline. You can understand why her world is forever turned upside down when her daughter goes missing and how it has a lingering effect throughout the years. One main issue is that the three-part storyline isn’t always consistent, and the tone and emotional current ebbs and flows at different points. Some acts are stronger than others, but it’s ultimately held together by Miller’s performance. She’s been delivering great performances for years, but she truly shines here and brings depth and dimension to this character who undergoes a great deal of growth. It’s not an “obvious” collection of actors, but every casting choice is perfect, with Will Sasso greatly surprising me with the amount of authenticity and warmth that he brings to this rare dramatic role.
American Woman succeeds in its unflinching look at one woman’s perseverance in a world that tries its best to bring her down in more ways than anyone should experience. It doesn’t hold back any punches or provide any easy exits or quick fixes to provide a Hollywood-esque happy ending. This is not that movie. It’s a tough pill to swallow but one that is necessary in a world that is very much as cold and unforgiving as portrayed here. We are given a ray of hope from this bleak reality in seeing Miller’s character experience this growth in her personal independence and the way that she holds onto hope through her grandson, who ultimately keeps the spirit of her daughter alive. It’s not always the easiest watch, but one that feels very essential, almost like the antithesis to the idealistic American dream and home life that we are constantly fed. If nothing else, it proves that Sienna Miller’s talents are still untapped and that she delivers one of the unforgettable performances of the year that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.