For single (grand)mother Debs, family is everything; embracing her sexuality, seeking out the stimulations in life – those small moments of excitement amidst the hardships of raising a daughter, who also has a new-born. Slow in pace, it’s a growing movie which charters the lives of women in middle-America, blue-collar counties. After daughter Bridget goes missing, Debs is left to care for her grandson, as the remaining family go about their lives, not out of spite, but out of necessity.
It’s a name most of us recognise – Sienna Miller – but how often could the general moviegoer list her performances? American Woman reinforces the range of which Miller is capable, and this film seems to recognise this. An understated performance, many others would overplay the character, launching us into an Oscar-baiting melodrama. It’s a wholly realistic performance, without any real deviations in delivery. This is a story thousands of women experience across the US, repeatedly told but slipping through the cracks one way or another. Intense, Miller is a mother for whom pain is an everyday aspect of life, carrying the suppressed grief and rage off a way few other actresses can.
Driven by performance, something is missing, an element which sets American Woman apart. Failing to secure an independent or art-house theme, notions such as these keep rooting it in dangerous soap-opera territory. Brad Inglesby and Jake Scott’s writing verges on overly emotional for the occasional moment, particularly the movie’s most intense scene, where there’s a discernible imbalance in performers’ energy. For, in reality, the role of Debs is hollow – a blank canvas for Miller to become, grasping the psychological complications of the character. Suspicions of poor direction should arise, but it is likely a decision by director Scott to allow Miller freedom with the role.
A notion or two detracts from the realism of the surrounding ensemble, with a stellar line-up, Scott fails to draw-out the best in all. In particular Aaron Paul, the middle man between father figure for Jesse and a chivalrous, second chance at happiness. As the tragedy of Bridget’s disappearance unfolds, the minor everyday pains feel natural, heightening how out of places performances like Paul’s are. An irritable mother and live-together sister, Amy Madigan and Christina Hendricks, have the only energy to challenge Miller in a specifically familial relationship.
Achieving a frustration with life, without relying on ramming symbolic imagery works greatly in its favour. Where narrative devices seem to suggest a sudden turn or revelation, the reality is often the rebuttal. There are quite often no big sudden changes, no easy fixes or answers. Life is just that, life – an epitaph Inglesby and Scott comprehends. Parcelling the narrative, American Woman is an ideal length, for a near-ideal movie for its intentions. Straying into many genres, wandering, it reflects the entire tone, aimlessly meandering through life as shit happens, we survive. We get on with it, with small glimmers of joy keeping us going.
American Woman feels worn, which is far from a complaint, and John Mathieson’s cinematography reflects the movie strikingly. Chock full of understated performances, it’s a touching drama which takes its time to unfold, rather than push unnecessary drama to the forefront. It’s a mature film, reminding us of the loss in life and the painfully extensive time to recover.
In cinemas Fri Oct 11t 2019 and Blu-ray from Mon Oct 14 2019.