Movie Review: American Woman (2018)

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"You're not fat, sweetie, you're stuck in a rut."

Rather than wish for things to go back to the way they used to be, in American Woman's opening scene, Deb (Sienna Miller) tells her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreria) to make the most of the way things are.

Two single women who both had a baby in their teens, Deb and Bridge are the type of mother and daughter whose similarities transcend DNA, who not only relate to each other better as friends but like most friends, give each other the kind of advice that they themselves might actually need to hear.

And that's decidedly the case with Deb whom we watch flail around in her own rut as she goes on a date with a married man to a seedy motel and accepts that she's being used for his entertainment.

Essentially announcing the film's theme, these lines penned by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby reverberate in our minds shortly after once again when Bridget fails to return home from her own date and Deb tries to keep standing amid the aftershocks of life's cruelest earthquake.

Left to raise her young grandson after a search for the Pennsylvania teen yields no results, American Woman follows Deb's journey over an eleven year period as she navigates ruts in work, life, and love, decides when she's had enough, and searches for a break in her daughter's case.

Using anamorphic lenses to widen the cramped rooms of the on location shoot, cinematographer John Matheison and director Jake Scott utilize a "you are here" approach to place us in the crowded homes occupied by Deb and her supportive, saintly sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) who live directly across the street from one another.

Set on a cul-de-sac, which again plays into the idea of a rut and makes the audience hope that Deb will be able to escape a life of dead ends, the emotionally harrowing character driven effort has less in common with twenty-first century filmmaking and instead feels like a work of 1970s Cassavetes style homage.

From the loss of her daughter to domestic abuse, while we're with Sienna Miller the whole way in a tour de force performance on par with Factory Girl and Interview, the litmus testing American Woman suffers at times from the same affliction that Niki Caro's North Country did in its need to pile on rather than build up our main character.
Playing less like fully earned moments of drama than moments of torture porn, Woman is done few favors by the film's episodic structure which rewards the pain and sprinkles in moments of advancement in Deb's life as a mere afterthought.

Spending more time on peripheral jerks we barely understand than focusing on Miller, Hendricks or a terrific Amy Madigan and Will Sasso (as the women's mother and Katherine's husband respectively), just when it begins to introduce us to new characters, we're greeted with a shocking incident and a narrative slam of the door.

Disappearing from sight almost as quickly as they hit the screen, by the time Aaron Paul's Chris appears as an attentive new suitor for a tired-of-men Deb, we've already begun to say goodbye, which is a damn shame when we're treated with actors of this caliber.

And in fact, similar to the outcome of Jake Scott's previous picture Welcome to the Rileys with James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, and Melissa Leo, it's the strength of the cast and their commitment to championing everyday American lives in the face of turmoil that keeps us engaged whenever Woman falters.

A powerful script nonetheless from the Out of the Furnace screenwriter and one that would perhaps fare better on the stage, while it's easy to accept it the way things are as far as the performances are concerned, as an overall film, Scott's American Woman never quite manages to get out of its rut.

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