American Woman 2019 *****

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Sienna Miller gives a transformative performance in Jake Scott’s drama American Woman, the kind of work that should, and quite possibly could, win awards. Miller may not have been first choice for this role, Anne Hathaway’s fingerprints were reportedly all over the script, but Miller makes it her own, giving heart and humanity to a complex character. Debra Callahan should remind you of someone you know, or used to know, and Scott’s film deftly describes a hard-working, if erratic woman’s predicament.

Callahan is a single mother, raising her daughter in the same house as her mother (Amy Madigan), with her sister (Christina Hendricks) living directly across the road. We’re talking hard-scrabble Pennsylvania, and when Debra’s daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing, Debra is quick to accuse other members of the community of potential involvement. After the rage passes, and with no sign of her daughter returning, Debra has to raise young Jessie, her daughter’s son, on her own.

American Woman’s narrative falls into three distinct sections, with Debra and Jessie still at home, but facing different domestic issues; suitors come and go, with Chris (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) the best of them. But Debra is also aware that there’s never been any closure as far as her daughter goes, and still wonders where she might be…

The narrative of Scott’s film recalls The Changeling, and the powerful landscape evoked by a grieving mother who will not give up hope. Hathaway might well have given a great performance, as she did in Rachel Getting Married, but Miller digs deep to light up the screen and make the role her own, showing a woman forced to mature by circumstances, but refusing to give in to bitterness or isolation. Paul and Hendricks give excellent support, but Miller is an absolute revelation here.

From an ignominious start as a resistible tabloid staple, Miller has paid her dues with significant work in films like American Sniper, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of awards campaign can be mounted; it’s the kind of work that for the likes of Theron, Adams or Hathaway would be a slam-dunk for nominations. It’s also a breakthrough for Scott; his debut, Plunkett and Macleane was a light-hearted romp, but he found traction with Welcome to The Rileys, and doubles down on the same domestic gravity he mined in that under-rated James Gandolfini/Kristen Stewart vehicle. American Woman is a strong, meaty slice of Americana; if you think you already know who Sienna Miller is, you’ll want to think again.

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