American Woman

 

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Sienna Miller excels in a film that shows a woman living her life.

 

American Woman

Sienna Miller (right)

 

A screen original from the pen of Brad Ingelsby best known for his co-authorship of 2013's Out of the Furnace, American Woman is a highly unusual work. You will feel that all the more if you approach it as I did with very limited knowledge regarding its subject matter. I was aware in advance that Sienna Miller had been much praised for her central performance in it (rightly so as it turns out) and that the story concerned Debra Callahan, a single mother in her thirties, suddenly having to cope with the mysterious disappearance of her 17-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira). This suggested that the film would be a dramatic work lying somewhere between a thriller centred on a police investigation and a mystery tale with uncertainty as to Bridget's fate as its main focus.

 

The opening section of American Woman did nothing to dispel these expectations although one was aware even then that it was a film paying welcome attention to creating characterisations convincing enough to have a sense of everyday reality about them. That applies not only to the early scenes of Debra and Bridget but equally to other relationships as we meet Debra's mother (Amy Madigan), her straight-laced married sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks), her brother-in-law (Will Sasso) and Bridget's boyfriend Tyler (Alex Neustredter) who is disliked by Debra. Tyler is, in fact, the father of Bridget's child, Jesse, who will be played by a series of actors because the narrative suddenly moves forward and continues to do so.

 

There is, of course, no reason why a story should not be spread over years (Richard Linklater's Boyhood is the outstanding example of what such a piece can achieve) but, although Bridget's unknown fate will become central again, American Woman goes against expectations by concentrating for much of its length on other aspects of Debra's life. In the circumstances, it becomes a work that offers no clear sense of where it is taking us. Indeed, although it brings in significant roles later on for Pat Healy and Aaron Paul, one comes to wonder if it should have been entitled An American Woman by way of implying that, despite the one great tragedy in her life, everything centres on Debra and a typical story of what might happen to any woman living in America today.

 

To satisfy fully regardless of its seeming lack of direction the film would arguably need a screenplay of exceptional insight and quality. Good as most of the writing is (a few details are questionable), Ingelby's screenplay is not on that level, but director Jake Scott is true to the work's life-like unforced aspirations. Nevertheless, it is really the acting that carries the film through its time shifts satisfactorily. Sasso, for example, is splendidly unactorly as the brother-in-law, but essentially the film belongs to Miller. Debra can behave badly at times but we totally understand her as a woman coping with life in her own way yet always haunted by the loss of her daughter in circumstances that will only emerge years later. If the writing ensures that this is a film built around a female character, it is Miller's performance that has the quality to make this centre hold triumphantly.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Macon Blair,  Neustredter, E. Roger Mitchell, Pat Healy, Maggie Castle.

 

Dir Jake Scott, Pro Brad Feinstein, Michael A. Pruss, Ridley Scott and Kevin J. Walsh, Screenplay Brad Ingelsby, Ph John Mathieson, Pro Des Happy Massee, Ed Joi McMillon, Music Adam Wiltzie, Costumes Alex Bovaird.

 

Romulus Entertainment/Scott Free Production-Signature Entertainment.
112 mins. UK/USA. 2018. Rel: 11 October 2019. Cert. 15.