In a small, blue-collar town in Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old woman’s teen daughter goes missing
Sienna Miller has quietly become one of the most reliable character actresses today, with a number of impactful supporting performances for directors ranging from Clint Eastwood to Ben Wheatley under her belt. But this transformation has also come with one major pitfall: she has become typecast as “the wife”, a secondary figure in male dominated stories, who may get to work with a plethora of exciting filmmakers, but rarely has a chance to break out of the limitations of these roles. She’s a commanding screen presence relegated to being only one step above a background figure.
And this is where Jake Scott comes in. The prolific music video director previously afforded Kristen Stewart one of the first “adult” roles that set the stage for her post-Twilight era (2010’s Welcome to the Rileys), and in his first feature since then, he’s given Miller the star vehicle her talent has been crying out for. What a shame that the biggest flaw of his film is the package it’s being presented in; a beautifully devised, decades spanning look at a mother’s grief following her daughter’s disappearance, released with the bland title American Woman. There’s a bitter irony to Miller’s best performance to date being hidden under a similar non-descriptor to many of her previous typecast supporting roles.
The story opens in 2003. Miller plays Debra Callahan, a 32 year-old single mother of a teenage daughter, who has a thing of reckless affairs with married men. Her daughter Bridget has left for the night to go on a date with her sometime partner Tyler, the father of her baby son Jesse, and the next morning, she hasn’t returned. Debra points the finger at Tyler, claiming he’s abusive, and her behaviour spirals as an investigation into her disappearance begins. After an apparent suicide attempt, we flash forward seven years later, when Debra is raising grandson Jesse, and slowly putting her life back together in the wake of her daughter’s unresolved disappearance.
The years-spanning narrative, beginning in 2003 and ending in the present, ensures the film acts as a showreel for Miller’s talents. From the recklessness of the opening act, to the resilience and damage amidst later abusive relationships, to an eventual maternal responsibility when raising her grandson, Debra Callahan is a deeply flawed but consistently empathetic character, with Miller’s performance growing more restrained as the years pass. Scott, working from a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby, often flashes forward years at a time with no forewarning, refraining from clumsy exposition when showing the subtle changes to the character’s lives in the intervening years. Life milestones are irrelevant and notable in their absence, but the growth they’ve afforded Debra Callahan help transform a simple character study into something altogether grander.
American Woman is a great showreel for Miller, but unfortunately, this depth of characterisation isn’t afforded to the rest of the ensemble cast. Her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and husband Terry (Will Sasso) live across the road, and although are frequently involved in the drama, are never characterised beyond their relationship to Debra. Similarly, all of Debra’s romantic relationships are very tellingly devised as quick methods to obtain character growth, never believably drawn out, and always designed to end abruptly once they’ve reached a moment Debra can grow from. It works wonders for Miller’s performance – but means that the accomplished performers around her (including Aaron Paul as a later romantic partner) are as secondary as she has been in other films.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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