HomeMovies'American Woman' Review: A Powerful Story Done in by its Storytelling

‘American Woman’ Review: A Powerful Story Done in by its Storytelling

Photo Credit: Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

American Woman, the new film directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby should have been part of last year’s Oscar race. Well-regarded after its TIFF premiere, the cast includes award-winning TV actors like Christina Hendricks and Aaron Paul and features a stripped-down Sienna Miller in the titular role. Bittersweet and filled with big emotional moments for everyone involved, it feels like it should be an Awards Season darling. And that’s exactly the problem.

Miller plays Deb Callahan, a lifelong Pennsylvania resident who seems destined to spend the rest of her life living across the street from her sister Kath (Hendricks). A boozy, crass, chain smoker unrepentantly sleeping with a married man, Deb works at a grocery store and lives with her 17-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira). After taking care of Bridget’s 2-year-old son, Jesse one night while she goes out with the boy’s father, Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), Deb grows concerned when Bridget still isn’t home the next morning. As days pass with no sign of Bridget, Deb and her family start to fall apart.

Based on that description, it seems easy to guess where the film will go. Each actor will get a big, emotional monologue, with Miller getting an awards reel-ready breakdown in the last act. Instead, Inglesby’s script quickly flashes forward five years to find Deb raising Jesse alone with Bridget’s disappearance still unsolved. At first, that decision is jarring. There’s a lot of compelling drama to play in Deb’s initial search for her daughter and it feels like a missed opportunity. However, as the film goes on and jumps forward multiple times in the 11 years it covers, it becomes clear that Inglesby isn’t interested isn’t he initial shock of grief, but its effect over time.

With each jump, we see Deb mature. That first major jump finds her in college, no longer smoking but dating an abusive guy who she keeps around to foot the bills. A few jumps later, she’s settled into a job and Jesse is now a teenager (played by Aidan Fiske). The house she lives in similarly changes in subtle ways. When we first meet Deb in the Bush era, her kitchen is dingy and constantly in need of fixing, when she’s steadily employed in present day, that same kitchen is covered in a tiled backsplash and the walls have a fresh coat of paint. The only space that doesn’t change is Bridget’s room.

Though Bridget’s absence is rarely the focus of each section of time, Deb is constantly reminded of her. There’s the moment during her college graduation party when she pauses to look at a picture of Bridget on Kath’s fridge or the moment during her wedding reception when her brother-in-law, Terry (a wonderful Will Sasso), says how happy Bridget would have been to see her mother happy. Bridget’s disappearance hangs over everything Deb does. And while that motif could easily become heavy-handed, the reason that subtle, slow picture of the way Deb reacts to her grief works is thanks in large part to Miller’s performance.

Miller’s show of Deb’s grief is incredibly compelling. When she’s relaying her suspicions to police about where Bridget has gone in the hours after her disappearance, she makes Deb frenetic and dangerous. When she’s disciplining Jesse later in the film, we feel the way her actions are influenced by the mistakes Deb thinks she made with Bridget. That said, Deb can feel a little over-the-top in the film’s first few scenes and while that can partially be excused because it allows Miller to create a more convincing arc over the course of the film, it also keeps her from completely disappearing into the role because we’re constantly aware of her effort. Granted, that’s not entirely Miller’s fault.

Rather, what keeps American Woman from feeling like a real story is precisely how forced so much of it feels. There’s the cinematography, which allows for some clever time jumps like a single shot where Deb and her new husband drive away in one car down a sunny street and she returns at dusk in a different car a few years later. Most of all, there’s the storytelling. Ingelsby frequently cuts away from the scenes we’re most used to seeing–like the moment when Deb is about to finally get some answers about what happened to Bridget–and while it’s gratifying to see a different approach, it also makes the film a far subtler affair than its filmmaking would suggest. So many of the techniques insist on being acknowledged when what makes the film so powerful is the way is subtly traces Deb’s emotional arc over years. Rather, because the film constantly draws attention to how prestigious the film is trying to be, it makes it harder to ignore its minor failures like the uneven accent work and the fact Miller never looks less like a movie star no matter how dowdy her costumes are.

In the end, the film’s downfall is right there in its title. American Woman suggests an epic tale of one woman whose experiences reflect an entire country. The story Scott and Ingelsby tells is much more intimate, small, sharp and beautiful in its potent simplicity. And that’s fine. Forcing it to represent more does everyone involved a disservice.

American Woman opens in theaters Friday.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

Most Recent

Stay Connected