The title’s a touch misleading. There’s nothing specifically American about the experiences Debra Callahan (Sienna Miller) goes through, nor about her impulsiveness, her vulnerability or her resilience. But by placing her in a deftly sketched working-class community in small-town rust-belt Pennsylvania (though the film was in fact shot in Massachusetts) and surrounding her with a voluble, critical, squabbling and loving family, screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Jake Scott (son of Ridley) have given us an indelible portrait of a woman struggling, and eventually succeeding in her struggle, to survive the events that threaten to overcome and destroy her.
USA/United Kingdom 2019
Certificate 15 111m 48s
Director Jake Scott
Debra Callahan, ‘Deb’ Sienna Miller
Kath Christina Hendricks
Chris Aaron Paul
Terry Will Sasso
Bridget Callahan Sky Ferreira
Ray Pat Healy
UK release date 11 October 2019 in cinemas and to download
Distributor Signature Entertainment
Early on, in a moment of warm intimacy with her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), Debra responds to the girl’s wish that things could “go back to the way they were” by telling her that they won’t, but “you make do with what’s left”. Which is exactly what Debra is forced to do after Bridget disappears, gradually fighting her way through grief, excess drinking, suicidal impulses, dead-end jobs and a succession of ill-chosen men – and emerging into something close to equilibrium. The grief, though, never leaves her, for all that she learns to live with it. It’s there etched into her face when, in a scene startling in its confident economy, she finally confronts the man responsible for it.
Miller, American-born and raised in Britain, throws off the ‘supportive wife’ roles she’s too often been assigned in recent years (Foxcatcher, The Lost City of Z) and takes impressive control of American Woman, seamlessly inhabiting Debra with all her emotional ebbs and flows, her transient joys and equally transient tantrums, while charting the hard-won maturity that, by the film’s ending, she has finally managed to achieve.
But that’s not to diminish the contributions of her supporting cast, especially Christina Hendricks as her sister Kath, Amy Madigan as their mother Peggy and Will Sasso as Kath’s stolid but supportive husband Terry. The frequent and often vituperative family rows, and the equally effusive reconciliations, feel all too real.
The timeline takes some unheralded leaps. From Bridget’s disappearance, and the fruitless communal search for her, we jump seven years into the future to find Debra and Bridget’s son Jesse oppressed by authoritarian live-in boyfriend Ray (Pat Healy). Then, after Debra has married the gentle and sympathetic Chris (Aaron Paul), a further five-year leap brings us to the final plot resolves – of Debra’s marriage and of Bridget’s disappearance.
Often Scott’s film verges into unexpected territory. Our first view of Jesse’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter) is of an obnoxious stoner teen, crassly indifferent to his ex-girlfriend’s fate. Five years later he shows up again, older and more thoughtful, and in a quietly affecting scene he and Debra acknowledge the damage they did to each other at the time of the crisis. We get a vivid sense of how both of them have moved on.
American Woman doesn’t tie everything up neatly, but that’s one of its strengths. And in its empathy and patience, it offers Miller the part this too often sidelined actor has long deserved; she seizes it superbly. As a portrait of a tragically bereaved mother, her Debra stands beside Frances McDormand’s tour de force performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – less showy, perhaps, but no less deeply felt.