Without a doubt, Sienna Miller delivers one of the greatest performances of the year in “American Woman.” Jake Scott’s drama develops within the framework of a thriller as Miller plays a 32-year old grandmother whose teenage daughter goes missing in rural Pennsylvania. As the search begins, Miller is left to care for her daughter’s young son while dealing with overbearing relatives and abusive men. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby keeps the story centered on Miller’s blue-collar character instead of the daughter’s disappearance as the film becomes a character study showcasing Millers tremendous range in her first lead role.
The transformation that Miller undergoes during the film’s 111-minute run time is incredible. By the time we reach the finale she is almost unrecognizable as the same person we met during the opening scene. “American Woman” takes place over an 11-year span so while her character ages, her outward appearance is not a physical metamorphosis aided by makeup, but a spiritual one that comes with maturity as we let go of the old habits. Her character goes from someone running away from motherhood to someone who fully embraces it.
31-year old single mom Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller) works as a grocery store cashier in a small rural Pennsylvania town. She became a mother at an early age just like her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), who’s raising an infant son named Jesse. The three live together across the street from Deb’s older sister Kath (Christina Hendricks), her husband Terry (Will Sasso), and their widowed mother Peggy (Amy Madigan). It’s usually never a great idea to live this close to family as evident with Deb who is constantly bickering with her mom and sis.
It doesn’t take long to establish Deb’s disposition as she slips into a slinky dress for a date with her very married boyfriend. Yes, she’s also a Side Chick. As Bridget watches her mom prance about the room looking for compliments and asking advice about her clothing it feels like we’re watching a remake of “Freaky Friday” where the roles have been reversed. Deb acts more like a teenager than Bridget.
While Deb is out with her married lover, Bridget goes to visit her baby-daddy Tyler (Alex Neustaedter) who is more content on smoking pot and playing video games instead of taking care of his child. The two get into an argument and Bridget decides to walk home in the middle of the night. She never makes it.
Like a David Fincher project, all the elements of a good thriller are in place as missing posters go up and neighbors are gathered to search the nearby wooded area. The film’s trailer and poster are a little misleading as they lean towards the thriller genre but “American Woman” uses Bridget’s disappearance as a life-altering event, and one of many, that mold Deb into the person she becomes by the end of the film. It’s a fantastic role for Miller who has moved on from playing the cute blonde or supportive wife. She’s paid her dues and after this powerful performance, she deserves nothing but lead roles.
The supporting cast features standout performances by Christina Hendricks and Will Sasso as the committed couple that offers nothing but support to Deb in her time of need. We should all be so lucky to have such a sister and brother-in-law. After almost 40 years behind the camera, it’s great to see Amy Madigan in any role. The actress is a true gem and here she’s perfect as the mother who never stops offering advice to her daughter even when she’s a grown woman. The men in Deb’s life are played by Pat Healy and Aaron Paul. One of them is clearly worse than the other but neither turns out to be Prince Charming.
When Jake Scott was twelve years old his father Ridley Scott was filming “Alien.” Now as the younger Scott rolls into his third feature he’s beginning to exhibit some of his father’s traits as a filmmaker. “American Woman” is his best work and Sienna Miller’s superlative performance. Every single character in the film is relatable and genuine. We all know someone like Deb or Kath. Seek out “American Woman” this weekend if just for Miller’s knockout performance.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday, June 14 in Houston at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace, AMC Gulf Pointe 30, AMC Willowbrook 24, AMC First Colony 24, and Cinemark 19 and XD. In Austin at Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills and Cinemark Hill Country Galleria.