At first, it may seem risible for a male director (Jake Scott, son of famed Ridley Scott) and a male screenwriter (Brad Inglesby, known for somber films like Out of the Furnace and Run All Night in which adrenalized male leads seek retribution for family injustice) attempt to burrow beneath the surface of a character like that of Sienna Miller’s Debra in American Woman. And for the first half or so, they wobble mightily.
But then, after a certain narrative event, the film (and Miller herself) develops a certain tempo that celebrates the rhythms of life in an unassuming way. Above all, American Woman overcomes its early deficiencies by simply not going where one expects it to go.
The problem with its first half, especially after one acclimates themselves to Miller’s portrayal of a hard drinking, hard luck woman falling into one loveless affair after the other, is that its East Coast kitchen-sink realism delivers no new truths. The film makes us feel for Miller, but her character is from a long line of cinema-types whose dead end prospects rely on someone else providing for her.
Living with her 16-year-old daughter (Sky Ferreira) and across the street from her sister Katherine (a wonderful Christina Hendricks) and her husband (Will Sasso), Debra continually makes bad choices in men and fights with her family about it. It’s shrill and obnoxious, to say the least.
But from that uneven first half, American Woman crawls out of the ordinary and somewhat earns its title about the perseverance and depth of a woman struggling to simply live her life.
Through several ingenious little time jumps (without using an edit), the film settles into a mosaic examination of love, grief and self-acceptance over a decade. Seeing how the friendship evolves between Debra and her sister Katherine through several wordless embraces in times of pain or the especially love-hate interactions with her aging mom (Amy Madigan), Miller throws herself into a role that she inhabits with fierce honesty as the film progresses. We actually want her to find some happiness, even if the mechanism of the world seems to continually root for her destruction. It’s the evolution of how Miller handles these subtle catastrophes in her life that ultimately makes American Woman compelling.
Directed by Scott with a workmanlike attitude that befits the hard-scrabbled Pennsylvania life the characters lead, he wisely stays out of the way and allows Miller to hold our attention. And she rightly does. There’s one scene in particular that’s hinted at but cut away from just before characters begin to speak. At first, I felt cheated that the film didn’t have the courage to reveal the between-glass conversation. Instead, we see Miller outside, afterwards, and her body language conveys all the emotion we need to see. The film didn’t have to go there because Miller is doing it for us now.
American Woman opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, June 14.