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‘American Woman’ Review: Dir. Jake Scott (2019)

The gruelling odyssey of one woman’s grief and her struggle to come to terms with pain, regret and tragedy takes the focus of Jake Scott’s latest film, one which thrives on the chemistry of its performers, and the performance of its leading lady in particular.

Sienna Miller plays Debra Callahan, a single grandmother in her early 30’s who lives with her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) and infant son, Jesse. When Bridget disappears with no trace, Debra is left to reevaluate her life and raise her grandson, all the while hoping for some answers as to just what happened to Bridget.

Scott and his screenwriter Brad Ingelsby very much want this drama to play as both a long-gestating mystery procedural and as a close and personal examination of the effects of losing a loved one on an American family unit, akin to something like Manchester by the Sea. While some scenes do make for some potent and affecting drama, this is a chronicle of a woman’s life that never quite manages to wrangle its scope into something that has something all that concise to say about its themes revolving around family.

The fact that the film doesn’t linger on the mystery of Bridget’s disappearance can be both intriguing and frustrating. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film chronicles many years from Bridget’s disappearance, following the brash Debra as she completely crumbles in the wake of the disappearance, and charting her experience as she begins to pick up the pieces and rebuild a life for both herself and her grandson.

Dealing with the passage of time in such an untelegraphed way, expressing how even the largest of wounds can heal when given space, is affecting in certain moments, but the film is never quite capable of expressing the weight of said time passing, with an odd rhythm that often undercuts the effect of the passage of time. It also certainly doesn’t help that much of the film is aggressively downbeat. If the tragedy of losing her daughter under mysterious, unexplained circumstances wasn’t enough, the film ladles on the down-trodden melodrama with abusive and emotionally vacant relationships. It allows for the sweeter moments of the film to have more resonance, but there’s no escaping the fact that the tone of the thing proves to be overtly bleak, draining, and ultimately a little dull. It certainly doesn’t help that the washed-out cinematography robs the film of anything that visually interesting, with an odd green tinge over the film that just makes the whole cast look like they’re a bit ill in every scene.

Yet, what the film is capable of doing well is in the moments in which it drops in little grace notes of familial love, care, growth, and forgiveness that go a long to helping the overall tone of the film to be a little more hopeful come the final stretch. This is down in part to Ingelsby’s dialogue, which rarely feels contrived, and by the performances across its cast. This is very much Sienna Miller’s show, and she’s never been better, putting in a performance that initially begins as quite off-putting, but becomes more refined and rounded as the film goes along, and Miller ensures we feel every step of Debra’s journey along with her. She also has great chemistry with her other cast members, particularly when it comes to her relationship with on-screen sister Christina Hendricks. They convey so much shared history at a glance that you thoroughly believe that these people have looked out for each other their whole lives. It is a pairing that makes the whole film worthwhile.

Related: New artwork and clip for American Woman

For a film that ultimately proves to be about the power of holding on to hope, American Woman is too aggressive in constructing a narrative in which there are just so many reasons not to hold on to it, relying too heavily on melodramatic tropes and an overtly bleak tone. It is the performances and the patches of light in between the fog that manage to get this film across the line, with a never-better Miller ensuring that the sweeter grace notes of this often too sour experience resonate to optimum dramatic effect.

American Woman is released in cinemas and on digital HD on 11th October.


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