First, a brief complaint: American Woman (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 14) is the latest in a long line of films featuring the adjective ‘American’ in their title. American Jihad, American Nightmares, American Satan, and American Sniper are just a few of the recent releases relying on this bland, generic, and not terribly helpful descriptor to sell tickets.
Now, some praise: though not perfect by any stretch, American Woman is a largely satisfying drama charting the sometimes tragic, sometimes happy life of – yes! – a female human being of said nationality. Doggedly uninspiring its title may be, but at least it isn’t an example of false advertising.
Directed by Jake ‘son of Ridley’ Scott (who, in keeping with this week’s theme, made a film entitled American Gangster in 2007) and penned by Brad Inglesby, American Woman stars Sienna Miller as Deb, a feisty middle-aged mom with a rebellious streak. Though her sister Kat (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) and mother (Rachel Singer) live in the house immediately opposite hers, Deb’s defiantly independent streak has clearly marked her as the black sheep of the family – a role she clearly relishes.
Deb is helping daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) raise newborn Jesse, the fruit of a teenage fling with immature, irresponsible pot-smoking nogoodnik Tyler (Alex Neustaedter). Despite Tyler’s litany of flaws Bridget just can’t quit the boy; after a surreptitious nighttime rendezvous with him, she disappears – apparently forever.
American Woman could easily have gone down the One Woman’s Search for Justice path, but Inglesby chooses instead to focus on Deb’s efforts to put her life back together after her loss. Though Bridget’s absence hangs heavy over the balance of the film, it frequently fades into the background, allowing the story to grow in other directions.
Miller’s performance is already being touted as one of the year’s best and a likely Academy Award contender, and it’s easy to see why: the dearth of strong leading roles for women aside, she brings both fiery determination and sensitivity to her performance as the headstrong Deb. She’s well supported by the supporting cast, with special kudos to Will Sasso as lovable brother-in-law Terry.
There are flaws. Hewing a little too closely to the established template for films about the ‘white working class,’ Inglesby’s screenplay imagines a world where blue-collar America still has jobs, union contracts, and enough disposable income to purchase an RV. While the focus on characters and relationships is welcome, Inglebsy’s decision to gloss over the realities of modern life chips away at American Woman’s verisimilitude.
Luckily, those relationships are well drawn. While Deb constantly feuds with Kat and Mom, there’s still plenty of love to go around; her fling with married man Brett (the intriguingly monikered Kentucker Audley) and abusive Ray (Pat Healy) largely believable. A second act marriage with handsome Chris (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) is briefly idyllic but ultimately curdles when she catches him cheating. Men!
Composer Andrew Wiltze got his start with ‘post-rock’ ensembles Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and his gentle, elegiac score builds on the minimalist approach of both of those groups. It’s a particular blessing in a film bearing the same title as The Guess Who’s wretched 1970 choogle, and another reason to check out American Woman.