Review: American Woman

Director: Jake Scott

Stars: Sienna Miller, Aaron Paul, Christina Hendricks

Jae Scott – son of Ridders – steps back onto the stage with this muted, quietly impressive little indie, but to the world at large it might seem as though it isn’t even there. The internet discourse is wrapped up in Joker still, while cinema chains are sticking with the more bankable choices in the current selection box. Which is a shame.

From the pen of Brad Ingelsby (who is making a career of writing tales of lost Middle America) comes this character study of a plain speaking young mother whose life hits the bumpers when her 16-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing one day. Days become weeks. Weeks become months. And then the years start rolling by. American Woman divides into chapters in this way, lurching forward in time as the calendar advances and still no Bridget in sight. Deb (Sienna Miller) raises her grandson, struggles financially, dates a dickhead (Pat Healy), and later enters a cagey romance with Aaron Paul’s part-way decent Chris. All the while, in spite of these changes, there’s that nagging sense of narrative limbo. The negative space in the photograph where Bridget ought to be.

American Woman is about the spaces in our lives. The ones we choose to fill, and the ones we choose to leave empty.

This might not sound especially inspired in the world of 2019. We’re inundated with high concept movie pitches and mass-marketed IPs, but American Woman is a sturdy little film that rests on a number of fine, rounded performances. Miller is excellent in the lead. Her Deb is ground down by experience, cynical, eager to protect her heart following such deep wounds. We get to see her develop from a party girl to a grown woman making peace with her lot in life.

Miller’s performance seems to be enhanced every time she shares a scene with Christina Hendricks who plays Deb’s sister across the road, Katherine. In all honesty if American Woman had been 90 minutes of these two riffing on one another with their sibling routine, that’d have been just fine. Hendricks is pretty much always bankable for a good performance, but this may be her finest role since Mad Men. Arriving a lot later in the picture, Aaron Paul also shines, bringing a flash of levity into Deb’s house of woe. At least, for a little while…

And it continues. Will Sasso doesn’t have a lot to do as Katherine’s husband Terry, but he is pitch perfect with what he’s given, and the aforementioned Pat Healy might be this year’s most wretched douchebag as Deb’s loser boyfriend Ray. You’ll be so happy to see the back of him, and that’s a credit to his storming ability to play such a heel. All of these characters interact and Scott captures them without ego. He defers to his actors. If there’s any strong authorial crutch, it comes with the implementation of Adam Wiltzie and Agnes Obel’s plaintive score made up of intersecting drones.

Which is not to say Scott isn’t adept. With a varied career in advertising, music videos, miscellaneous shorts and a prior feature (2010’s Welcome To The Rileys), he’s amassed enough experience not to showboat. This pays dividends on how slyly immersive his film becomes. Having it be about people seems like a simplistic sell – maybe that’s not enough these days – but Scott’s stable of characters feel real, well-worn, true without tilting too closely to stereotype or cliché.

This is a film that lives in the same space as the likes of Marc Forster’s often-forgotten Monster’s Ball. American Woman is about the ‘little people’, without ever daring to be so condescending. Is there a glass ceiling to such material? Maybe so. Something indefinable, perhaps as trivial as personal taste, keeps Scott’s film from transcending its own pre-set limitations. It is what it is, no more, no less. But in a year of killer clowns and pummeling spandex movies, there’s something to be said for experiences like this one that are welcomingly down to earth.

Probably the best film to start with the word ‘American’ in quite some time, and also a lot more satisfying than most of pops’ recent output.

Score: 

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