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The story of a woman working through several stages of reliance on men — sexual need, economic dependence, then deeper emotional bonds — to realize that blood ties are the only ones she can count on, Jake Scott’s American Woman is also the story of mourning put on hold. Playing a woman whose only daughter disappears, and who must live her life without knowing if her child is alive or dead, Sienna Miller offers a beautiful, agile performance that would by itself justify the film’s existence. Despite moments of narrative overreach, the picture provides a credible setting for this long journey into maturity.
Miller’s Debra enters the film as a hot grandma — having become a single mother at 16 and then watched her daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), do exactly the same thing, she balances time babysitting her infant grandson with nights getting dolled up for the married man who sees her on the side.
Across the street from Deb’s house, older sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) doesn’t approve. Loving but intolerant of poor life choices, Kath is a one-woman reference point for everything Deb might’ve done differently. She’s devoted to her husband, Terry (Will Sasso), who may have gotten fat since their high school courtship but is a bedrock-solid partner: He’s there for their two sons, and will leap out the door without complaint when somebody needs to go drag his sister-in-law out of trouble. (Sasso is known for goofy comic roles, but his appearance here suggests filmmakers would be wise to look to him for more substantive character-actor work.)
Though having her sister across the street can feel like being continuously scolded, Deb — who resents anyone who’d spoil what fun she’s able to find, and pushes through those buzz-kills with mockery and denial — relies on Kath’s love, and the sense of community the film generates between the two households is one of its selling points. The portrait is rounded out by the siblings’ widowed mother Peggy, played by Amy Madigan as the kind of parent who doesn’t see how genuine concern can feel insulting to someone it’s directed at.
No sooner do we have the lay of the land than Bridget goes out one night and never returns. Deb instinctively blames the crime on Tyler, the father of Bridget’s child and a no-good kid, well played by Alex Neustaedter. But as time passes, it seems unlikely that Tyler had anything to do with it, and unlikely that Bridget will ever be found, dead or alive.
One night, drunk on grief, need and shame (and also just drunk), Deb acts out and nearly gets herself killed. The next morning, six years have passed.
Deb is taking accounting classes, she’s raising the elementary-school-age Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and she has a live-in boyfriend paying her expenses: Pat Healy’s Ray, the kind of man who insists on controlling his environment and everyone living in it. This arrangement is a step up in practical terms from screwing a married man, but it’s both morally problematic and dangerous. It doesn’t last long, and the film uses the end of the relationship to demonstrate how much Deb has grown. She’ll be wary the next time a man (Aaron Paul’s Chris) enters her life, even though this may finally be a chance at a healthy partnership. And then another decade passes, elapsing cleverly without so much as a break between scenes.
Though the film spans well over a decade, Deb and her family (Jesse excepted, obviously) don’t seem to age a day or gain a pound. She wears more tasteful clothes and hairstyles as we go, but the burden of convincing us time has passed falls wholly on Miller. Fortunately, she’s up to the job, transforming Deb from a free spirit in denial to a woman capable of caring for herself and others. Though Brad Ingelsby’s script tries to shoehorn more changes into Deb’s life than the movie can comfortably handle — professional accomplishments, betrayals, and the occasional reminder that she hasn’t forgotten her daughter — Miller’s witty and wide-ranging performance grounds the picture, and convinces us she’s ready for the bombshells Woman drops on her near the end.
Production companies: Scott Free, Romulus Entertainment
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Amy Madigan, Pat Healy, Alex Neustaedter, Aidan Fiske, Aidan McGraw, Sky Ferreira
Director: Jake Scott
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby
Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin Walsh, Michael Pruss, Brad Feinstein
Executive producers: Ryan Stowell, Shea Kammer, Brad Ingelsby, Joseph Ingrassia, Erika Olde
Director of photography: John Mathieson
Production designer: Happy Massee
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Editor: Joi McMillon
Composer: Adam Wiltizie
Casting director: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
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