When Debra’s (Sienna Miller) teen daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), disappeared, she was left to raise her infant grandson alone. But, she has never had closure with her loss, even though 11 years have passed in “American Woman.”
Director Jake Scott (son of Ridley) takes the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby and gives Sienna Miller a powerful role as a single mom raising a teen daughter and that daughter’s infant son. At 32, Debra must face the prospect of being a grandmother, too young, but copes well enough. She is a strong-willed woman who has made mistakes in her life and has paid for them and, sometimes, learned a lesson.
After Bridget disappeared, Debra’s life continues in its chaos but always with her grandson, Jesse, number one in her mind, forcing her to mature. Helping Debra, and providing moral support, are her sister, Katherine (Christina Hendricks), and brother-in-law Terry (Will Sasso) and both are genuine and both excellent.
Although Miller is the focus of “American Woman,” the rest of the cast, as with Hendricks and Sasso, are first rate. And, as the story spans more than a decade, these characters – like Deb’s live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), who she refers to as “a hemorrhoid, but he pays the bills,” and Chris (Aaron Paul), a genuinely nice guy who marries Debra but screws up – come into and go out of her life. But, as Debra learns, sometimes the hard way, there is always your family on your side.
Until now, I had seen Sienna Miller only in supporting roles and I never really noted her as an actress. Jake Scott, by spotlighting Miller, allows her to find her true ability. We get to know Debra over many years and see her change, grow and mature. She is one tough cookie and it is stellar performance by Miller. I give it a B.
At the age of 31, Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller) hasn't grown up. The daughter she had at sixteen, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), is now a mother herself, complaining about her pregnancy pounds as she watches Deb slather on makeup and pour herself into the skin tight dress she'll quickly discard when she meets her married lover later in a motel room. Deb warns Bridget when her daughter goes out a night or two later, her date a possible reconciliation dinner with her baby daddy Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), but it will not be until the next morning, when she's woken by the crying of her infant grandson Jesse, that Deb realizes Bridget never made it home in "American Woman."
Written by "Out of the Furnace's" Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake 'son of Ridley' Scott ("Welcome to the Rileys") this Pennsylvania set film has a lot in common with "Boyhood," specifically Mason's mom. Although it wasn't shot over the eleven years during which it takes place, it is about the evolution of a woman who, having lost her daughter, starts over again with her daughter's child, suffering the consequences of an abusive relationship to ensure a roof over their heads until accounting school allows her financial independence. Sienna Miller really digs deep here, her character's initial irresponsible immaturity unsympathetic. The actress gains respect for her character bit by bit, beginning with a real gut punch of self realization delivered unwittingly by Bridget's friend, who tells her that Bridget set off on foot after midnight the night she disappeared, insisting on making the three mile walk because her mom would be mad if she were left to take care of her grandson that morning.
Deb's distress over her missing daughter is never in doubt, her emotional plea to search volunteers heartbreaking. She begs Brett, her married lover, to come over, but his promise broken, Deb acts out, driving under the influence to his house, then off the road after being humiliated by his wife. Her late night wandering down a lonely road cannot but help make us imagine Bridget doing the same a few nights earlier. Deb lashes out at everyone, cruel to her well-intentioned if somewhat overbearing mother Peggy (a fine Amy Madigan), exasperating her helpful brother-in-law Terry (Will Sasso). Her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, stands firm in her support if not her approval.
Over the course of time, Deb weathers two long-term relationships. The first, with Ray (Pat Healy), is an increasingly abusive and controlling one. When Deb finally takes a violent stand, her grandson running over to his aunt and uncle's for help, she seems to snap out of her bad behavior. When Terry sets her up with a kind coworker, Chris (Aaron Paul), Deb is rudely unresponsive, but Chris's persistence and humor pan out. They marry eight weeks later. But Bridget is always there, in the background, Deb seen checking a missing persons database. Then one day, Det. Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) returns.
"American Woman" is about the in between time, a suspension of a woman's motherhood but not her life. Ingelsby's crafted a slice of life in which a woman forced to take responsibility for another ends up finding her own independence while Scott lays out the complexities of family amidst both the Everyday and the unthinkable. Scott has guided his ensemble well, small moments, like Katherine observing Terry in an armchair in another room, memorable. The production, which was shot on location in Massachusetts (primarily Brockton), is firmly rooted in reality.
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