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There is a fascinating story at the heart of American Woman, based on Susan Choi’s audacious 2003 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel of the same name. A first feature written and directed by Semi Chellas, a writer on Mad Men, the drama is inspired by Patricia Hearst’s time spent underground in 1974 and ’75, after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and joined their cause. The novel and film’s smart, skewed approach to the subject of 1970s radicalism is not to focus on the heiress, but to see those events and America’s political crises of the period through the eyes of the person charged with taking care of the Hearst character in hiding.
The American woman of the title is Jenny (Hong Chau, who played Matt Damon’s housekeeper in Downsizing), a fictional variation on Wendy Yoshimura, who was for a time Hearst’s minder. Jenny is less radical and more thoughtful than her charges, and potentially a rich heroine. But she is not quite fully formed as a character and is unfortunately surrounded by three other characters who range from flat to outlandishly caricatured. The film is lively and detailed enough so it is never boring, but it never takes off dramatically or realizes its intriguing possibilities either.
Most of the pic is a long flashback framed by unnecessary scenes of Jenny in prison, being questioned by an FBI agent. The story truly begins with her living in a large old house working for Miss Dolly, an entitled, rich old woman. Throughout the story, Chau is extremely good at capturing the tension, fear and questioning behind Jenny’s calm facade. And in just a few scenes as Miss Dolly, Ellen Burstyn creates a character capable of surprising us.
Jenny, who is Asian-American, has her own issues with society. Miss Dolly calls her an “Oriental girl” and she repeatedly has to remind people that she was born in California. And she is on the run after having bombed a draft center, a crime for which her boyfriend is in prison. An expert at laying low, she is asked by a contact to move in with some members of the underground as their link to the outside world, getting them groceries, helping them write a book.
Arriving at a remote rented house in upstate New York, Jenny meets her charges, who have escaped the police shootout that killed the rest of their group. Sarah Gadon plays the Hearst stand-in, called Pauline, who seems both defiant and tentative, smoking all day, spouting anti-capitalist rhetoric, yet timid. Gadon is a vivid onscreen presence, but we never approach the complexity of Pauline’s inner life, or her obvious trauma.
Her colleagues are also her distrustful captors, and the movie’s biggest problems. John Gallagher Jr., usually so solidly good, is over-the-top in a ludicrously written role as Juan, the hateful, overbearing hothead of the group. He taunts Pauline by calling her Princess, waves a gun around, refuses to listen to Jenny’s warnings about attracting attention, and emerges as a cartoonish embodiment of machismo. There was certainly sexism in the ’70s (the FBI agent tells Jenny, “I’d sure like to know why you girls are so goddamned mad”) and in the underground, but Juan doesn’t begin to resemble a real person.
Lola Kirke, as Juan’s partner, Yvonne, has little to do except walk around in shorts and a tank top, waving her blonde curls. Yvonne may or may not be a bubblehead.
Chellas is best at capturing the details of their life underground, from the mice scampering around the ramshackle hideout to the gloves Jenny wears while writing letters to her boyfriend. No fingerprints can appear on the mail to allow authorities to find her.
And for a while, at least, the characters might seem enigmatic rather than underdeveloped. But any hope the film will find its voice disappears about two-thirds of the way through, when a robbery that Juan has insists on doing goes wrong. Jenny escapes with Pauline, they hit the road traveling cross-country and the movie falls apart.
For some reason — we don’t know why — Jenny suddenly realizes that Pauline might not be terrified, but has been playing her. When their car breaks down in a fierce rain storm, though, each encourages the other to run when a police car pulls up. Neither of them moves, but whatever bond they have established is only hinted at, even as they share motel rooms. Just when the film’s drama should ramp up, a languid pace takes over instead.
From the start, Jenny has questioned the group’s violent tactics. Her bombing took place at night in an empty building, making a political state rather than harming anyone. But the trajectory of her thinking before and after Pauline remains obscure. By the end, American Woman does not seem like a failure, but a disappointing, missed opportunity.
Production companies: First Generation Films, Killer Films, Elevation Pictures
Cast: Hong Chau, Sarah Gadon, John Gallagher Jr., Lola Kirke, David Cubitt, Ellen Burstyn
Director-screenwriter: Semi Chellas
Producers: Semi Chellas, Christina Piovesan, Noah Segal
Director of photography: Gregory Middleton
Production designer: Zazu Myers
Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz, Mara Zigler
Editor: Lindsay Allikas
Music: Lesley Barber
Casting: Laura Rosenthal
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: UTA, Cinetic
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