American Woman reminded me a lot of Martin Scorsese’s early studio film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which also saw a woman evolve her independence through the struggle of raising a child. American Woman’s mother, however, is also a 30-something grandmother assuming care of her teenage daughter’s child after unmistakable tragedy. It’s a slice of life compilation that spans eleven years of love, loss and family, delivering both support circles and heartbreaking setbacks to a female-led character study. The results are good, if not intentionally repetitive, but boosted predominantly by Sienna Miller’s emotionally-charged leading performance.
Miller plays Debra Callahan, a single blue-collar mother from rural Pennsylvania who shares a roof with her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) and her son Jesse. The kid’s father Terry is still around, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for Jesse, much to Deb’s anger. Their house resides on a cul-de-sac blocked off by green railings, neighboring Deb’s sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and her children and husband Terry (Will Sasso, from the Three Stooges reboot of all things). Compared to their all-American household, Deb’s lifestyle is a bit more rambunctious: she excessively smokes, acts crudely and sleeps with a married man. Yet she still loves her daughter and understands the hardships of raising a child so young. Then, one night, Bridget doesn’t come home, the victim of a kidnap/murder on the road.
In most films, Deb’s personal grief would coincide with an ongoing search for Bridget’s body or kidnapper. American Woman doesn’t go that route. In fact, when the murderer is finally caught eleven years later, we don’t even glimpse his face in prison, keeping the source of this tragedy metaphorical. The real story is how Deb moves on from Bridget’s death financially and romantically while raising Jesse. Life simply…. goes on, even after a mother’s worst nightmare come to life. Those “what comes next” observations are what guide Deb’s development, mostly to positive results.
In addition to Alice, there’s also a Boyhood vibe to director Jake Scott’s (son of Ridley Scott, also the film’s producer) narrative, bouncing across three points in Deb’s life that see Jesse grow into a young child and preteen. You can tell when the film attempts a time jump, usually via extended long take shots. However, their visual placement can be rather misleading, cutting anywhere from a few weeks to years without much indication on how much time passed. In that time, Deb rises from grocery clerk to waitress to hospital worker. She goes back to school, quits smoking and gradually builds stronger relationships with her sister and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan), whose own single mom status was once a source of Deb’s youthful resentment. In a twisted sense, losing Bridgette forced Deb to embrace a maturity that never quite took priority during her early years.
For better or for worse, this shift in responsibility mirrors the evolution of Debra’s love interests. There’s one per timeline, each reflecting her status as a parental figure and willingness to make tough choices. Pre-disappearance Deb has serial adulterer Brett, then fast forward a few years and she’s dating an abusive prick named Ray (Pat Healy), who sadly pays for the house and food. It’s only until she meets Chris (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), a young co-worker of Terry’s and the only partner to cross eras, that Deb discovers what appears to be a positive alternative. While Chris makes the nicest impression, all three men veer too close into melodrama archetypes. That their depth amounts to unfaithful/abusive behavior plays into the film’s most generic trope: using excessive romantic tragedy to make Deb more independent.
By contrast, Deb and Katherine’s interactions are American Woman‘s strongest moments. Their dynamic is both easygoing and wearisome, a sisterly byproduct of recognizing each other’s flaws and quirks across the decades. At first they’re antagonistic- Katherine berates Deb for who she sleeps with and Deb hates that Katherine and her mom judge her so harshly. But over time we see the two grow, coming to each other’s aid in times of crisis and enjoying family gatherings together. With her romantic life never turning the way it should, family becomes the glue that helps Deb overcome each setback and express her self-doubts.
Sierra Miller also stands out in the lead role, offering a nuanced performance that we don’t often see in her other roles, which tended to stop at ‘love interest.’ While her growth feels like a condensed variation of Boyhood, it’s still fascinating to observe the subtle changes in Miller’s rhetoric and movements over more than a decade’s time. Across these eras we see Deb walk a balance between determined and vulnerable, doing the best to raise herself and Jesse in the face of emotional and physical setbacks. Yet she perseveres and grounds her success in the opportunities available, addressing day-to-day conflicts as they happen. Much like grieving for Bridgette’s disappearance, all Deb can really do is move forward.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
American Woman offers a solid character study despite never feeling that groundbreaking. Much like Wild Rose, its moments of cliché melodrama, particularly with the romance subplots, are balanced out by well-directed and believable interactions from the cast. It’s a testament to Sierra Miller that most of the film’s archetypical moments never feel stock, instead developing more subtle layers that emphasize her chronological growth. It’s too early to tell if this indie drama will be rewarded with cable channel airtime, but it deserves some recognition nonetheless.