American Woman is a superbly well-drawn character portrait, blending elements of Boyhood and Erin Brockovich to form a frequently moving film. Although Jake Scott’s direction doesn’t have the skilled craft of either of those features, what he and his team achieve is enabling Sienna Miller to bring texture and versatility to a role from a layered Brad Ingelsby script.
Miller leads as Debra, whose daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing early in the film, leaving Debra to agonise over both Bridget’s fate and the raising of her young grandson. The film then chronicles her life across several years; from the immediate aftermath to her initial attempts to move on, and further still to her attempts at a happy married life. Key supporting roles at these stages are provided by Christina Hendricks, as Debra’s sister, and Aaron Paul as a later romantic partner, Chris.
American Woman shares a blue-collar Pennsylvanian backdrop and some thematic elements with another of screenwriter Ingelsby’s more successful features: the Christian Bale-led Out of the Furnace. Much like how Debra struggles to move on from Bridget’s disappearance, with problems developing specific to her place in American society, the 2013 film features Casey Affleck as a US veteran struggling to move on from his time in the Iraq war. Where American Woman succeeds, though, is in shedding the more cliched symbolism to focus more clearly on character, and allowing the lead role room to breathe. Fortunately, Sienna Miller rises to this responsibility.
In the lead role Miller displays both the ability for showy, emotional monologues, and also more subtle understated work. Her panic and emotional rawness at the film’s catalytic kidnapping are teary and unvarnished, but the later segments also sell the heartbreak – and dismissiveness – suffered by Debra in much more restrained fashion. Later in the film, additional let downs are met with stony glares and firm speech – there is less explosiveness and more weary glances. When considering the length of time that plays out in the narrative, there is a real understanding of the character’s development reflected in the script and performance.
Jake Scott’s directing seems more functional than imaginative, but the objective of his framing and blocking is to give centre stage to Miller’s excellent performance. There is a tonal awareness apparent in the other technical work, with Debra often under harsh fluorescent glows when emotionally exposed, half-lit in shadow when in despair, evenly lit in daylight when in control and at peace. The cinematography of John Mathieson (who worked with Scott’s father Ridley on Gladiator) has a richness to it throughout.
For example, as Debra stumbles home in the dark along an unlit road it adds to her sense of isolation and hopelessness at that stage in her story. Joi McMillon is on editing duties, and shows the same growing mastery in the timing and pacing of scenes that she brought to Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Much like both of Barry Jenkins’ features, American Woman features time jumps in the narrative. As with those earlier films McMillon has the skill to make these flow within the story, rather than introducing a jarring step change in pace that would undermine the character’s progression.
The story told in American Woman does not break new ground, but the technical elements of the filmmaking are executed effectively to highlight the film’s lead performance. Sienna Miller rises to that challenge to complete a moving character piece.
Review screener provided
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American Woman stands out because of an excellent central performance from Sienna Miller, and all the other elements are calibrated perfectly to showcase her in the role.
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