American Woman, directed by Jake Scott and written by Brand Inglesby, shows that the star-driven drama has not died. To see a personal and emotional film like this get a substantial release is refreshing in a time when multiplexes seem to be dominated by superhero movies and other big-budget blockbusters.
The film, taking place over eleven years, follows a mother who is forced to raise her young grandson after her teenage daughter goes missing. Although it would be impossible for anyone to fully relate to the struggles through which the protagonist is going, the movie does an excellent job of helping us imagine, primarily due to skilled directing from Scott and an outstanding performance by Sienna Miller.
Scott takes a rightfully gritty and realistic approach to the film, focusing on the emotion of the story rather than the mystery. The beginning of the movie very much sets it up to be another missing person thriller derivative of Gone Girl, but instead, Inglesby’s script takes a sharp turn and becomes so much more: a character-driven drama that provides commentary on the class system in modern-day America.
Our protagonist, Debra, the eponymous American Woman, is a Byronic hero in the most classical sense of the world. Throughout the film, we see how her flaws eat at her from within. Like so many people in our world today, her future is defined from decisions she made in the past. Audiences will be heartbroken by the urgency of Debra’s story and the thought that this is, in fact, a situation with which many people must live in their daily lives.
Miller’s performance as Debra is genuinely amazing, cementing her as a star to watch. In the past, her work has been largely in supporting roles, so it is nice to see Miller finally get her chance in the spotlight. She falls completely into the character, infusing so much honesty and sincerity into her turn that you couldn’t imagine the movie with anyone else as the lead. Although the race is already proving to be rather packed and the year is less than halfway done, Miller should not be forgotten come awards season.
A very talented supporting ensemble backs Miller up, although the other performers exist in this film mostly to elicit a reaction from Miller’s character. Pat Healy gives what is likely the most memorable supporting performances in the movie as one of Debra’s abusive and manipulative beaus. Healy truly nails the more menacing aspects of the character, further allowing Debra’s story to resonate with audiences. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Aaron Paul, who is much more subdued as another romantic interest, but is heartbreaking in a different way.
Bringing this emotionally-charged story to the screen could not have been an easy task, and Scott handles it in a way that makes the film feel natural grounded. The easy route would have been to make the movie a tearjerker, with emotionally manipulative tactics used to get the audience to pity the characters. Instead, our sympathy comes through much more natural means, such as close cinematography, soft lighting, and a muted color palette which complements the tone of the script quite well.
Perhaps the only real disappointment about this film is that it seems to have no regard for time and continuity. For all the emotion that Inglesby put into his script, you will be disappointed that the narrative is temporally sloppy. Although the time jumps are obvious if you watch Debra’s grandson grow up, not enough is done to age Debra herself, neither in terms of personality or make-up for Miller. Possibly this ties into the movie’s message about how people can never truly get over a tragedy, but this inconsistency does negate some of the realism that the filmmakers worked so hard to create.
Some viewers may have a hard time approaching the difficult subject matter that is handled by American Woman, and it is a quite emotionally-draining film. Nevertheless, this feels like an important watch that couldn’t have come at a better time, as the division between classes is growing, and more and more people seem to be ending up in this situation.
American Woman opens in theaters on June 14.