A woman raises her young grandson after her daughter goes missing. (IMDB)
1 hour, 51 minutes
June 14, 2019
Director: Jake Scott
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Composer: Adam Wiltzie
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Sienna Miller
When American Woman premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2018, director Jake Scott admitted in interviews that he was a weird kid growing up. He felt like an outsider; he wasn’t interested in Star Wars but was that geeky child that loved films like Kramer vs. Kramer. He’s a sucker for overwrought dramas that delve into people’s relationships with each other. So when he saw Brad Ingelsby’s script, Scott couldn’t resist.
After another showing at the Sydney Film Festival last week, now American Woman has finally earned itself a limited release around the United States. Has Jake Scott come full circle and crafted a drama worthy of admiration from other geeky cinephiles like him?
Violence/Scary Images: There are several scenes displaying domestic violence. A man slams a woman’s head against hard surfaces. A woman hits a man in the head with a frying pan. A character willingly drives off the road, hitting a tree. There is talk of a murder–nothing shown, and no details are discussed. A dead rabbit is seen. The disappearance of a teenage girl is the main drive behind the narrative.
Language/Crude Humor: Excessive swearing. F-bombs and s-words are said every other minute. Lesser swears such *ss, h*ll, and d*mn are said along with their variations. Sexually derogatory terms like wh*re are used, along with a few jokes about genitalia. God and Jesus’ names are used in vain frequently. The middle finger is raised a number of times.
Drug/Alcohol References: Alcohol is consumed, sometimes in excessive amounts. A character drives whilst drunk. Characters are seen smoking cigarettes frequently, occasionally mentioning how they are unable to quit.
Sexual Content: No direct nudity. A woman is seen in her underwear. She starts a striptease. There is a shot of a woman in a bath–bare shoulders are seen. Sexually active characters talk about their sex lives. There is a discussion about whether trying before you buy is better than remaining chaste before marriage. Two characters have affairs. A teenage boy has a crush on a girl. Unmarried men and women kiss.
Spiritual Content: Half of the family is Catholic. The Christian lifestyle (celibacy before marriage, faithfulness, praying, going to Church) is mentioned and sometimes mocked by a character.
Other Negative Content: One character spreads rumors which ruins another’s life. However, their behavior is called into question later on in the film.
Positive Content: This film depicts a character’s attitude changing for the better over time; they learn to forgive and to appreciate the help from family. A character is trapped in a cycle of abuse, eventually overcoming it.
It would be easy to mistake American Woman as a crime thriller. When Debra’s daughter, Bridget–a teen mother–goes missing one night after visiting a friend’s place, Debra finds herself looking after her grandson. The premise sets up the expectation that Debra would spend the majority of the runtime searching for clues, hunting down leads, and otherwise just not giving up. Yet this isn’t that type of movie.
As said in the trailer: “Things are not going to go back to the way they were. You make do with what’s left.” Instead of delivering the obvious, American Woman focuses on the years that pass after Bridget’s disappearance, and how Debra and her grandson Jesse adapt in the face of tragedy. It’s a film that sits firmly in the drama genre. Not thriller. Not mystery. If you’re expecting either, then this film will not tell the tale you want.
There’s a sad truth to the story’s counter-intuitive focus. As much as we might care about someone, time passes and life continues on regardless. Bridget’s mystery fades into the background. Yet her presence never leaves completely. A less mature film would double down on the suffering and sink into depression, though American Woman explores the more subtle shades of grief. Sometimes Bridget is remembered in just a quiet moment of reflection, as opposed to constant emotional bawling.
Yet this all leaves a worrisome question: if American Woman doesn’t focus on Bridget’s disappearance, then what exactly is the film about? What instead takes up the runtime?
As the years tick by, American Woman develops an episodic nature. Each portion is characterized by the men that enter and leave Debra’s life. Essentially one could say that that the different types of relationships women have with men are represented. There’s the absentee, the loser, the cheater, the abuser, the heartbreaker, the criminal, and the faithful. Bridget’s story is but one in a tapestry of cyclical abuse, which Debra spends years trying to escape.
Clearly, Debra is the protagonist of the story, even though on paper she doesn’t come across as a hero. She’s a victim, though also a ratbag of a character, stirring up problems and making poor life choices. With a feral attitude, Debra is naturally a hard woman to like. Thankfully Sienna Miller delivers a career-defining performance. Debra might be detestable in many ways, but Miller can swivel the audience’s affections around in the very next scene, displaying her beautiful, vulnerable humanity; she’s simply a woman seeking love and understanding. An “everywoman” figure, we all know a Debra in our lives.
In contrast to Debra’s chaotic life are her sister Katherine and brother-in-law Terry, played magnificently by Christina Hendricks and Will Sasso respectively. It is fascinating to watch the family dynamics in this film change and grow, creating a wonderful theme about the importance of finding a support system, and never taking those around you for granted.
All the performances are strong, although Aaron Paul feels oddly out of place. However, that’s not a critique of his acting skills. Rather, like Seann William Scott and more recently, Kit Harrington, Aaron Paul hasn’t seemed to have successfully differentiated himself from his most iconic role as of yet. Sadly Aaron Paul is still synonymous with Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad (which is an achievement in itself, though his fame does hinder his future projects).
At this stage, it would be delightful to see him follow in the footsteps of Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson, and even his TV screen partner Bryan Cranston. He needs a challenge; to play against type, or to push himself in ways he has never explored before. However, his role in American Woman is not meaty enough to break his own dwindling spiral of mediocre parts.
Generally speaking, American Woman is a solid, satisfying drama that operates as a more sinister version of Riding In Cars With Boys. If there’s anything left to critique, then it’s the story itself. Let’s put it this way: would you prefer to watch a movie about a mother trying to find her missing daughter? Or how a mother deals with years of cyclical abuse? The former storyline is more appealing to general audiences.
As a result, it’s a difficult film to recommend. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s brilliantly acted, filmed, and produced, but everyone I’ve ever spoken to about it comments on how depressing it is to watch. American Woman is intriguing, but it feels disingenuous to describe it as entertaining.
Yet it would be horrible to disregard such a film because of its unpalatable subject matter. What’s fascinating is that on IMDB, women on average are rating this movie one point higher than men in the same demographic. It’s easy to shrug this film off, citing frustration at Debra’s continual inability to improve her life within circumstances of her own making. But by doing so, the audience is responding in the same way that society treats the topic of domestic violence, by pointing the finger at the victim and highlighting their flaws instead of responding with love and understanding. Debra’s story is one of many. As less “exciting” as it may be, it still deserves to be told. To be heard. To be seen.
+ Sienna Miller delivers the best performance of her career
+ Supporting cast
+ Features a topic that needs more discussion
+ Some people will find the plot to be (sadly) highly relatable
+ Wonderful demonstration of familial love and acceptance
- Advertising is misleading in terms of the film's focus
- Doesn't tell the most interesting story possible
- Aaron Paul still hasn't escaped from Jesse Pinkman's shadow
- Will only appeal to a niche market of drama film fans
- Has all the swears (and a few fingers as well)
- Main character will be too unlikeable for some