Stories have trained us to expect life to progress in a linear nature: Set-up, complication, and resolution — preferably in that order and ideally with some connective tissue. In reality, it’s a little more circuitous. The connections are there, but some distance is required.
That seems to be the motivation of American Woman, the new drama from director Jake Scott and writer Brad Ingelsby, that, on the surface, appears to a be a standard missing-persons drama. American Woman is, but with a little distance, proves to be much more.
The center here is Debra (Sienna Miller), a single mother living in rural Pennsylvania with her teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), and her infant grandson, Jesse. Debra is a good-time girl. She drinks heavily, smokes constantly, and, as we learn her history in dribs and drabs, is used to playing the other woman. Not that Debra seems to mind; she’s enjoying herself, even if no one else is.
Then, Bridget goes missing. An investigation takes place, but there are no leads. The worst is assumed, and Debra self-destructs. Not completely, someone still needs to raise Jesse.
And raise him, she does. Debra begins taking night classes, finds an abusive boyfriend (Pat Healy) who can front the rent, and relies on the support of her sister (Christina Hendricks) and brother-in-law (Will Sasso) who live across the street. Debra grows stronger, more confident, and more independent. When a man in her life turns out to be like all the rest, Debra is distraught but not destroyed. Maybe she expected this; maybe she thought she brought it on herself. The whys don’t matter; only her reaction does.
American Woman does not move the way you think it might. It is a strong, confident piece of work that unfolds the way it wants to at the pace it feels it ought to. Like memory, there is nothing precise or defined about what marks time from one scene to the next. In one shot, a car speeds recklessly down the road, away from the camera and enthusiastically into the future. On the other side of the street, another car ambles toward the camera and eases into the driveway. Debra is in both of these cars, and ten years have collapsed into a single shot.
Miller’s performance is the anchor that keeps American Woman from drifting, but supporting performances from Hendricks and Sasso make this world feel full. These are not showy performances in a showy movie, yet the movie is never stationary. It moves along, knowing full well that when we get there, we get there.