Sienna Miller Gives A Career-Defining Performance In ‘American Woman’

by Jonah Desneux on June 20, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Film can serve as an excellent tool for understanding one’s tragedy. Even in a fictional piece, cinema has the ability to capture the essence of despair, evoking a raw emotional response for audiences to contemplate the troubled world around them. Often inspiration is derived from such films, as the hero overcomes their tragedy to find peace. Being inspirational, however, is not what director Jake Scott looks to achieve in his emotionally draining but exceptional film American Woman.

American Woman isn’t about how to cope with a great loss, instead it focuses on what damage it does to a soul. The story is set in a small blue-collar town in Pennsylvania as Sienna Miller plays Debra, a young mother in her 30s who cares for her teenage daughter and infant grandson. Though her troubling financial situation and questionable morals are an issue, Debra still holds a lively spirit and an electric charm to immediately win audiences over.

Debra’s life of finding balance through spontaneity drastically gets disrupted when her daughter drunkenly goes missing one night. After allegations fester and multiple searches are done to no avail, Debra is left without hope and the responsibility to care for her grandson. The film employs the use of abrupt cuts to demonstrate the passage of time to follow Debra’s life in the years following her daughter’s disappearance.

Brad Ingelsby’s bleak screenplay gives little answers but instead unravels the undeniable truth that what is irreplaceable can never truly be replaced. Through the passage of time, American Woman illustrates that in some cases time does not heal all wounds, it only allows an individual to establish the different ways to hide their pain.

The performances in American Woman are the main attraction of the film, specifically Sienna Miller’s. In having such a strong script, Miller is allowed to shine. Which she does, very very very brightly. Miller’s understanding and embodiment of the character is on par with award-season quality. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the film is not large enough to give Miller the respect she deserves. Miller’s performance easily welcomes audiences to love and empathize with Debra even while John Mathieson’s brilliant cinematography keeps us at a distance.

Miller excels at showing the range she is capable of. She has the playfulness one expects a mother to have with her children, while also effectively delivering the shattering meltdown along with a parent’s worst nightmare coming true.

As Debra tries to obtain a grip on her life after her daughter’s disappearance, Miller has a full grip on what each scene calls for. There is a feeling of sincerity in Debra’s growth heartbreak during times of setbacks. It is made clear that Debra is a genuinely good person who you still care for even when she makes bad decisions. Miller brings this important quality alive through her performance and it will hopefully open many doors for the rest of her what should be a successful career.

Though not on the same level as Miller, the rest of the cast does a great job at developing the personal tone of the film. Set in a small town with many repeating faces, you come to feel like part of the family. Christina Hendricks does an admirable job as Katherine, Debra’s sister. Taking on the role to be a guiding force for a character who doesn’t know how to be guided, Hendricks does a nice job at portraying a stable force that is much needed. As playing the opposite personality of Miller’s Debra, Hendricks’ strengths lay with how grounded she is in her character’s positive stubbornness.

The two young actors Aidan McGraw and Aiden Fiske who play the Jesse, the grandson of Debra, are also noteworthy in how they showcase the emotions of a boy growing up through a depressing circumstance. Portraying different ages of his life, both actors properly capture the complicated identity of a young man in his situation. McGraw who plays the six through eight-year-old Jesse is especially impressive compared to most child actors. Many times a sour performance from a much younger actor in a dramatic role can really take away from the impact of the film. McGraw’s performance though is believable and praiseworthy from the moment he appears on screen.

One of the greatest aspects of the performances is how well they worked together. Aaron Paul, however, didn’t seem to have the same chemistry with his co-stars as they did with one another. Paul who plays Chris, Debra’s love interest, always keeps his guard up, which established a disconnection that was never overcome. Part of this seems to be initially due to the script, but there was always the perception that this character isn’t acting like he was written to be. This may have been more of fault due to miscasting opposed to Paul himself.

Christina Hendricks and Sienna Miller in American Woman (2018)

American Woman is not about the big moments, but instead about watching how people react to them. This is brilliantly established in the editing as a subtle transition, and smoothly moves time along to show what the income of a moment as opposed to watching it unfold. Scott directs us to watch the forced growth of the characters, while always displaying the little moments that make them who they are. Short silent shots of Jesse at different moments of his life give more insight into the type of person he is growing into, more than any dialogue could.

The cinematography takes on a voyeuristic approach which is perfect for the intimacy of the film. While kept at a distance, we watch these characters as their most vulnerable. Many times it feels as if we shouldn’t, but it’s impossible to look away. It is like watching the clean up of a bad wreck. A sensation of guilt is trapped in your stomach as you spy on someone during the worst moment of their lives. However, our selfish fascination with others’ tragedy is difficult to keep oneself from. American Woman masterfully induces this sensation and though dark, it is one that everyone should experience.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.


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