When you become a parent, part of you changes forever. Gone is the egotistical facade of someone who appreciates life to the highest degree, and in its place arrives a dedicated caregiver.
American Woman details the visceral effect that a missing daughter can have on a parent over the course of time. Jake Scott’s film is equal parts unconventional, searing, and burns slow into its running time, making the viewer feel every ounce of emotion and change.
Sienna Miller gives the performance of a lifetime as Debra, who I would describe as a human hurricane when we first meet her in the film. She is set to go out on a hot date, and wants her daughter Bridget’s (Sky Ferreira) opinion and approval on the outfit. It’s barely covering any vital body part, but in one scene where the effect of pregnancy on the human body is discussed, you get the bond between these two women. It’s stronger than oak.
Both of them had kids at a very young age, and their connection is destroyed when Bridget goes missing, and Debra is left grief-stricken and has to look after her daughter’s kid, Jesse.
Now, in most films, the investigation into her absence and tracking down the guilty parties would soak up half the film. Take Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone for example, where the twists and turns of the search of a missing girl produced a gem of a film. Heck, Miller’s Debra even reminded me of Amy Ryan’s disastrous mother in that film.
Scott’s film, powered by a patient yet diligent Brad Ingelsby script, goes a different route. Instead of staying in the familiar lane of whodunit and capture, he wants to focus on the traumatic event’s effect on Debra and her family. I am talking about years, and trust me when I say no real spoilers are being given here. Scott doesn’t care much about what happened to Bridget as much as he does what happens to Debra, who is forced to make several uncomfortable and life-altering choices as a result of her missing kid.
I loved the patience of this movie. While one would say it was uneven in its presentation, I refer to that as necessary messy in trying to describe how the wires are reworked in someone. Debra doesn’t just get right in a couple scenes. She takes her hits, lets many others connect on her jaw, and finds a way.
While Christina Hendricks (as her sister) and Amy Madigan (as her mother) give credible performances, Miller owns the film. Without her go-for-broke performance, the film comes off as an HBO movie that most people don’t even notice. In order to drive down the unconventional road, you needed an actress with a healthy range. Miller has given solid performances before in Oscar fare such as American Sniper and Foxcatcher, she hits another level here. There is no Bradley Cooper or Mark Ruffalo to help out here, just a barren land with a familiar story lying at the center.
American Woman moves in mysterious ways and requires your patience to stay with the plot that jumps around. But it holds your interest with the raw and gritty atmosphere that Scott and the cinematographer, John Mathieson, create along with the shots that don’t cut so easily. The pacing may linger, but there’s a reason. When a potential love interest in Chris (Aaron Paul) comes into Debra’s life, you think an end is being tied up, but there’s something else waiting for you.
Instead of reaching for theatrics, Scott and Ingelsby never forget about the unnerving tough breaks of real life. The highs and lows of life torn apart by tragedy. Instead of big breaks in the case or a nice knot on a story thread, the creators go for a slow-boiling tension that leads to real drama. When a certain reveal is made late in the film, you’ll fall for it hard.
Sometimes, losing a kid to a disappearance can be as world-shattering as losing them instantly to death. Kids go missing every day in this country. The film was dedicated to Tommy Kelly, who went missing at the age of 17 in 1999. Other filmmakers would have inserted useless Hollywood theatrics to get their point across. Jake Scott goes the other way, feeding on our anxiety.
As I watched the film next to my own son, I gripped a blanket harder and harder with each scene. I winced at times, and stopped breathing during others. I never blinked.
Neither did Sienna Miller, who should be considered come award time at the end of the year. A performance of unmistakable grace and power.
American Woman isn’t the easiest watch, but it’s a quietly powerful ride.