Tour de force acting doesn’t always show up in great movies. Case in point: Sienna Miller’s career-high performance in “American Woman.” But the film is just good enough to do her acting justice. She plays Deb Callahan, a working-class single mother from Pennsylvania who confronts the unthinkable when her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. The police have no leads. With a void at the center of her ramshackle life, Deb is left to care for Bridget’s baby boy.
One of the best aspects of “American Woman,” directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby, is that it portrays its people without the usual special pleading that often accompanies movies about the working class. Deb lives in a tightknit community where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. This poses a particular problem for her, since, when the film begins, she is carrying on with a married man. But Deb, who works a series of odd jobs, is unapologetic about her wayward ways, even if they make her worried existence even more so. (She had Bridget when she was 16.) There’s a defiance to the way she carries herself, and a bitterness, too. She needs a man in her life and yet deeply distrusts all of them.
Because Bridget’s disappearance hits early in the movie, I was initially expecting a whodunit. But the filmmakers soon make it clear that the movie is much more about how Deb moves through, rather than solves, the catastrophe. There is a resolution of sorts, but because the film covers more than a decade in Deb’s life, until baby Jesse (played as an adult by Aidan Fiske) is in high school, the wrapup has the effect of a sad, slow fade-out rather than a deafening finale. The harm, in a sense, has long since happened.
Miller doesn’t attempt to make Deb “likable” in any conventional sense. Yes, her hair-trigger temper carries a sometimes justifiable righteousness. Just as often she alienates those who attempt to care for her, such as her sister Kath (Christina Hendricks), who lives directly across the street from her. When it comes to dealing with Deb, Kath and her burly husband, Terry (Will Sasso), and Deb’s mother, Peggy (Amy Madigan), all live in a state of perpetual exasperation. But it’s also obvious that these confrontations are convoluted expressions of love. It’s how these people relate to each other. Rarely is there any genuine malice underlying it all. This is foreshadowed in the early scenes between Deb and Bridget, before she goes missing. Preparing for a hot date, Deb is showing off a sexy outfit to her daughter, and we can feel the deep affection beneath the bickering and sniping.
The role of Deb is not written with any great depth, but Miller gets into the character’s psychological complications in a way that almost compensates for the lack. She understands how this controlling woman could also choose to submit herself to controlling men. The film may be a bit too rough on the male species, almost all of whom prove themselves to be curs and cowards, but we are seeing this world through Deb’s jaundiced eyes, and so her fatalism rings true. As does her gumption. Although the movie could have filled in more fully her emotional progress through the years, we can see how she arrives at a kind of uneasy peace by the end. She refuses victimhood. Grade: B+ (Rated R.)