It must have been in 2003 when I happened to catch a few episodes of a British comedy cop show called Keen Eddie. (I say “must have been,” because only four episodes ever aired in America.) In one of them, the female lead character found out that the polite young man who had visited her and drank her tea a couple of hours before was a serial killer who preyed on single women like herself and now knew where she lived. After taking in the news, she started barking out orders to the police officers assigned to protect her, and I found myself thinking, “Wow, it can’t be easy to be that authoritative when you’re a 5’2” woman in her bare feet who’s wearing only a man’s shirt and has tears streaming down her face.”
The actress managed it, and I remembered her name: Sienna Miller. Soon after that, this actress of mixed English and American parentage became tabloid fodder due to her involvement with then-It Boy Jude Law, but she emerged from that to act up a storm as Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl. And then, more than a decade of frustration, as she took roles in wide-of-the-mark period pieces (Casanova), misbegotten blockbusters (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), and prestige fare where she played suffering wives (American Sniper, Foxcatcher). I knew that she could deliver the goods if she were ever given the chance. That chance arrives in the shape of American Woman, which opens this week at AMC Grapevine Mills. You’ve likely seen this 38-year-old actress around, but this is likely your first chance to see what she’s truly capable of.
She portrays Debra Callahan, a 32-year-old grandmother in central Pennsylvania who still goes out partying and drinking most nights with a married man (Kentucker Audley). This is the case until her 16-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes out one night to try to reconcile with her own baby daddy (Alex Neustadter) and is never seen again. The story then finds Deb at various points over the next 11 years as she’s left to raise her grandson (played first by Aidan McGraw and then Aidan Fiske) on her own. Over that time, she quits smoking, dates an abusive man (Pat Healy), keeps Bridget’s pet rabbit, relapses into alcohol abuse, earns a business degree, dates a nicer man (Aaron Paul), looks after her aging mom (Amy Madigan) and pulls her life together before a break in the case comes from the blue.
The plot summary sounds like the setup for a Gone Girl-style thriller, but really this is the sort of movie that they supposedly don’t make any more, a working-class drama that in previous years would have made a vehicle for an A-list actress like Julia Roberts or Holly Hunter. Though the movie runs a scant 112 minutes and never leaves the confines of its working-class small town, it feels epic in scope thanks to the way it depicts Deb’s slow, fitful progress toward becoming her own woman and embracing maturity. Director Jake Scott (whose one previous effort was the science-fiction thriller Morgan) manages to draw this out without hitting any dead spots or turning the story portentous. Early on, Deb reacts to her daughter’s disappearance by getting drunk and crashing her car, and Scott conjures a great, phantasmagoric image of her white outfit bobbing up and down in ghostly fashion as she walks home, dazed and bleeding, down the center line of the deserted highway.
An unexpectedly moving performance comes from MadTV alum Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law, a laconic type who seems to feel all of her setbacks with her. Still, you can’t look away from Miller as the brash, hard-swearing, combative Deb. She excels in the big scenes, as Deb unravels after her daughter’s disappearance, but she’s even better in the quieter moments here, as Deb finds the strength to persevere in the face of cheating boyfriends, the drudgery of her bartending job, and a face-to-face meeting with a prison inmate who claims to have killed Bridget. Note, too, how she and Christina Hendricks (who plays Deb’s responsible older sister, who lives across the street) match their Pennsylvania accents to each other to convince us that these two women who look nothing alike are indeed related. Without Miller’s performance, American Woman might turn into a slog, but her galvanizing, unvarnished, resilient presence gives power to this drama of personal growth.
Starring Sienna Miller and Christina Hendricks. Directed by Jake Scott. Written by Brad Ingelsby. Rated R.