Sienna Miller seems to have a gift for playing damaged women. Her portrayal of Edie Sedgwick was easily the best thing in George Hickenlooper’s preachy Factory Girl (2006), and she almost single-handedly carries Jake Scott’s American Woman, an odd movie but a great showcase for her talents. And to be clear up front, I’m not criticizing her acting ability or her choices of roles, because actors can only choose from the roles that are offered to them, and American movies in particular tend to reserve the heroic leading roles for men.
But back to the subject at hand. American Woman, with a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby, offers a look at the lives of white, working-class, small-town Pennsylvanians at three different time periods spanning 11 years. When we first meet her, Deb (Miller) is 32 and barely holding together a household consisting of herself, her 16-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), and Bridget’s infant son Jesse (Aidan McGraw). Neither mother nor daughter have the best taste in men (or perhaps the men available to choose from are not the greatest): Deb is currently seeing a married man on the sly while the father of Bridget’s child (Alex Neustaedter) is more interested in partying with his loser friends than in being a responsible father. Deb is angry about just about everything in her life, and is given to acting before she thinks, but she’s also fiercely loyal to her family and doesn’t take anything from anyone.
Things are calmer next door, where Deb’s sister Katherine (a very de-glammed Christina Hendricks) lives a conventional life with her husband (Will Sasso) and kids. Katherine and family matriarch Peggy (Amy Madigan) are critical of Deb’s choices, but are always there for her, to the point where you might feel they are acting as enablers. Everything changes when Bridget disappears without a trace one night—Deb is thrown into a downward spiral of grief, and the movie teases use with the prospect of a mystery to be solved. Don’t get your hopes up for a procedural, however: while we will ultimately learn what happened to Bridget, this film has little interest in the process that led to that discovery.
American Woman revisits Deb at two more times time periods (during which no one but Jesse seems to age), which are laid out fairly didactically to show her growth as a person. In the second, she’s living with a man and raising Jesse. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the first time we lay eyes on him that Ray (Pat Healy) is creepy and controlling, and it doesn’t take long before he becomes violent as well. Another leap forward in time, and she’s living with Chris (Aaron Paul), who represents yet another step up in class. Deb also returns to school, studying accounting and eventually working as a manager, her upward economic journey paralleling that of her improving taste in men.
Jake Scott is best known as a director of music videos, which may explain why American Woman feels like a series of short segments edited together to make up a feature-length movie. While some of those segments are visually striking, many feel didactic, as if they were written to say “this is what working class people are like!” rather than stemming from the organic development of these particular characters. These characteristics contribute to a feeling of unreality throughout the film, so that for all the best efforts of the actors, American Woman feels like the kind of movie a privileged man (you’ve probably heard of Scott’s father Ridley) would make about a working-class woman—he means to be sympathetic but just doesn’t get it, and the result comes off as pitying and condescending. None of that can take away from Miller’s performance, however, and her work alone makes American Woman worth seeing. | Sarah Boslaugh