At first, the bones of “American Woman” feel familiar, with its titular character’s sharp elbows pushing us away. We’ve seen dramas led by brash women before; the one here is played by Sienna Miller, displaying more rage and range in a single film than some actresses get to show in their whole careers. But as the movie and its protagonist evolve, “American Woman” at once reveals its soft underbelly while landing a surprisingly effective punch to the gut — largely thanks to Miller’s deft performance.
Tragedy after tragedy befalls Debra (Miller) over the course of more than a decade in this character-driven drama, but it’s the first one that allows her to weather those that follow. At 32, Deb is an unlikely small-town Pennsylvania grandmother, one who asks her teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), for advice on what boots to wear for her date with her married lover.
However, Bridget soon disappears after a fight with her young son’s father, Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), and Deb spends the next 11 years raising her grandson, Jesse (played by Aidan McGraw as a child and Aidan Fiske as a teen). Other films would make the disappearance of Deb’s daughter their focus, but “American Woman” often leaves it in the background as she goes through jobs, school and men (played by Pat Healy and Aaron Paul). It’s largely uninterested in solving Bridget’s disappearance; instead its concern is how the event serves as the catalyst for Deb’s growth.
When we first meet her, she’s wild, somehow still rebelling in her thirties against her mother (Amy Madigan), her older sister, Katherine (Christina Hendricks), and the opinions of their blue-collar town. But while losing Bridget has an impact on Deb, she doesn’t change in predictable ways. She’s the picture of resilience, but Deb doesn’t look like the inspiring, grieving archetype. She’s strong, but there’s something delicate about the film, particularly in the gentle way it treats this person who we initially see as anything but.
Produced by Ridley Scott and directed by his son Jake Scott, “American Woman” bears a resemblance to the so-called woman’s film of old Hollywood. Emotional highs and lows are nicely balanced by small moments of humor, though the tone wobbles a bit. It features fine transitions between the years of Deb’s life, but its overall pace is too slow at times.
The script from Brad Ingelsby puts a modern spin on classic melodramas such as “Stella Dallas.” He gives audiences a female character who grows and changes as a result of her life’s sorrows, but she isn’t solely defined by them or her role as a wife and surrogate mother. Deb feels fully human, and while Ingelsby’s script deserves some credit, the movie is Miller’s.
Though Miller has had a few lead roles in movies such as “Factory Girl,” most of her career has been spent playing wives and girlfriends, notably in prestige films including “The Lost City of Z,” “Foxcatcher” and “American Sniper.” “American Woman,” however, requires the actress to embody every emotion on a “Today I Feel” poster, but with far more nuance.
After playing all those love interests, Deb is finally the lead Miller deserves to play. Those other roles saw her making the most of passive parts, but “American Woman” belongs entirely to her and is the better for it.
Rating: R, for language, sexual content and brief drug use
When: Opens Friday
Where: AMC Fashion Valley, Angelika Carmel Mountain, ArcLight La Jolla
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes