Get the riffs from The Guess Who and Lenny Kravitz as far out of mind as possible because this American Woman is not going to be a fun ride. Sienna Miller, who rather unfairly has only been featured as the suffering, put-upon wife in briefly in American Sniper and The Lost City of Z, takes the spotlight for herself in Jake Scott’s film. Though that’s not to say that the suffering doesn’t stay along for the ride. Debra (Sienna Miller) has not had an easy go of it: she was a teen mom, and despite working as a single mom, giving her own daughter the opportunity for a different life, Bridget (Sky Ferreira) gets pregnant at 16. Just the two of them, Debra and Bridget do their best to raise baby Jesse. On an evening where Debra readies herself for a date, Bridget, disconsolate, wishes for things to go back to the way they were. “They are not going to go back to the way they were,” Deb reminds her daughter, “you make do with what’s left.”
Those words come back to haunt her much sooner than she anticipates. On a date with the father of her baby, Bridget leaves and doesn’t come back the next morning. Debra, thinking that her daughter is hungover and shirking her responsibilities at home, leaves a voicemail chastising Bridget for her flakiness. What started out as a minor annoyance becomes full-fledged terror as Bridget’s disappearance drags past each new hour. Scott advances quickly through the steps of the first 48 hours, rushing from the police being called to suspects being pursued to a group search for Bridget in the wilderness. Sienna Miller, a vibrant presence as Debra for the film’s earlier, happier moments, nails the transition to grieving mother, evoking pathos in the process. However, American Woman decides to throw the audience for a loop by jumping years ahead, with Debra raising Jesse–now 7–and in a steady relationship with her new beau, Ray (Pat Healy).
All of the marketing for American Woman suggested that the plot would be focused around Debra’s missing daughter, but the story itself does everything possible to avoid resembling a homicide thriller. The film shows remarkable restraint in avoiding manufactured drama: there’s no outsized investigation, no teary phone call with her daughter’s captor, just the concerns of making it in lower-class America. Yet, if writer Brad Ingelsby was more interested in those much smaller stakes, why didn’t he simply excise the kidnapping from the script? Certainly, one could argue that Bridget’s disappearance is extraneous to the plot, especially when the film’s focus shifts to more life-sized interests. Namely, why do we tolerate the negative influences in our lives? Ray’s abuse is obvious, but what about the procession of other men whose transgressions are more manipulative? Just when Debra seems to finally get her life together, hardships continue to pile up. Bridget’s disappearance, infidelity, abuse, Debra must suffer every indignity with a sense of grace. And Miller does just that, sporting a cigarette dangling from her lip and hands cocked on her hips, daring anyone to challenge her. Deb’s redemption is one made of fire.
Fortunately, Jake Scott and Brad Inglesby are smart enough to avoid implying that Deb is changed for the better by the terrible men in her life. Instead, they pivot to ground Deb in the strength of her sister and mother. Debra’s mother (Amy Madigan) and sister Kathy (Christina Hendricks) do their best to give her her space, but they still see Debra settling for a bad man because she thinks it’s what she deserves. Christina Hendrick’s Kathy hasn’t had the same problems as Debra, but she’s smart enough to recognize a wounded soul crying out for help. Most of the scenes involving Amy Madigan often lead to shouting, yet the complicated mother-daughter dynamic relies on an untold backstory that Miller and Madigan provide with their faces. Madigan and Hendricks could have easily wound up little more than caricatures, who serve to nag Debra, but both actresses imbue their characters with a sense of warmth and caring that outshines the familial bickering. Aaron Paul and Will Sasso breathe life into the film when the proceedings threaten to get too gruelling.
Subtlety isn’t one of the film’s strong suits, Adam Wiltzie’s score isn’t present for most of the film, but as soon as the music swells, it’s clear that something terrible is going to happen to Deb. American Woman is genuine in its depiction of meager existence steeped in struggle without resorting to the type of poverty porn that defines other indie films covering rural America. The film never breaks through the ceiling it makes for itself with its lofty title, but it’s quite the accomplished indie. Jake Scott excels at the little things, like sisters calling each other on the phone about a disagreement, even when they can see each other looking through their blinds across the street. Sienna Miller has rarely gotten a chance to shine as the wife in biographies about famous men, but given her own lead role, she offers, perhaps, the best work of her career.