In the #METOO era, violence against women is often at the forefront of our news cycle. But what happens after the cameras go away and the world moves on? In the new film from directing royalty Jake Scott, American Woman tries to answer that question. After her deadbeat daughter leaves her with her grandson for three days, Debra (Sienna Miller) starts to question her daughter’s whereabouts. As worry and agitation turn into a mother’s worst nightmare, Debra realizes her daughter is really missing and turns to the police and her community to help bring her home to her grey and dreary Pennsylvania town. Told over an eleven-year span, American Woman takes the missing child/murdered daughter narrative and roots it in reality, showing what comes next after tragedy and how time and circumstance makes people move forward.
Sienna Miller carries this film with emotional complexity and quiet strength. At the beginning of the film, her Debra could be described as “white trash”, a teen mom with a shitty job and a string of shitty boyfriends and hookups. When her daughter, also a teen mother, disappears, Debra slowly gathers her life together. Miller plays Debra as hardworking with a tough snark about her, using compassion and sheer force of will to raise her grandson Jesse (Aiden McGraw). Despite numerous dead ends in the investigation, Debra trudges on, relying closely on her sister Katherine (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) and her supportive brother-in-law (Will Sasso), eventually finding a stable but doomed romance with Chris (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul). Throughout it all, Miller is a brilliant captivating force on screen, relatable and heartbreaking.
What is really effective are how the relationships are depicted in the film, particularly between Debra and Katherine. Realism is overflowing in their scenes together; they love each other yet are not afraid to call each other out. The respect and honesty between these two women is evident. The close presence between these sisters and neighbors is captured in every handhold, in every shoulder lean, in every stern look from Hendrick’s eyes and desperate hug and serve as a reminder that women derive their strength from other women.
Instead of focusing on confronting the killer or having her daughter’s murder and disappearance understandably define her life, the film focuses on Debra’s strength to set her life on a stable path despite the reminder of her daughter. We find who did commit the crime but never why, an appropriate metaphor for nothing ever being justified for killing someone and a mother never feeling the closure of her daughter’s murder.
Because of the film’s natural tone, the pacing is slow and some of the mundane everyday drama is boring. But that’s what makes this character study endearing. How this tragedy affects the average American woman overtime is relatable, even though most will never have a similar experience. Women forced to move on and hold everything together for everyone else is what women and mothers do every day.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5