There’s scope but not a whole lot of depth to “American Woman,” which attempts to make a sweeping and universal statement about one small life in the larger scheme of things. But Sienna Miller’s titular figure is at once too abrasive and too glam to be especially relatable as the Everywoman intended. Jake Scott’s third directorial feature in two decades doesn’t evince a firm enough grasp on the rhythms of lower-middle-class life in Rust Belt Pennsylvania to compensate for the over-dependence on crisis melodrama in Brad Inglesby’s script.
While offering some nice grace notes, the film feels too soap-operatic to meet the high bar of its more literary-minded pretensions. Unlikely to get the kind of critical support that would justify art-house exposure, it seems destined for quality cable sales.
We first meet Deb Callahan (Miller) past 30, and already waist-deep in the consequences of various bad choices she’s nowhere near done making. She’s having an affair with a married man (Kentucker Audley), who despite her unrealistic expectations clearly has no intention of leaving his wife and children. Working as a supermarket cashier, she barely supports 17-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), who’s got a toddler fathered by the hopeless screw-up (Alex Neustaedter as Tyler) she’s already broken up with.
Just across the street, Deb’s older sibling, Kath (Christina Hendricks), lives a much more settled life with bearish husband Terry (Will Sasso) and her own kids. Like their long-suffering mother, Peggy (Amy Madigan), Kath despairs of her sister’s stubborn insistence on doing things her way, (generally, the wrong way). But woe betide anyone who criticizes Deb, who’s quick to pick a fight.
One evening Bridget begs Deb to babysit Jesse so that she can have a night out. When, the next morning, she hasn’t returned, Deb immediately blames party animal Tyler, who claims she split after a fight. Annoyance turns to worry as it becomes clear that a somewhat inebriated Bridget vanished while walking home late at night. Her unresolved disappearance over the next 15 year or so remains the central pain of several lives here.
Nonetheless, life does go on — with plenty of turbulence, despite Deb’s more or less solo attempts to provide a stable home for her grandson (Aidan McGraw and Aidan Fiske play the older Jesse). Her various relationships with men (the irrationally jealous and abusive Ray, played by Pat Healy; nice guy Chris, played by Aaron Paul) leave her facing a decisive moment that doesn’t really feel like it will resolve any of her problems.
“American Woman” means to sprawl through a messy yet somehow triumphantly resilient life, but too often plays like a highlight reel of contrived crises that would more than fill several lives. We get too many extreme incidents and not nearly enough everyday moments to render Deb a real, three-dimensional person. When suddenly she’s taking college classes and embarking on a managerial career, it seems logical that she’d be mature enough to better her lot this way — yet nothing in the script has suggests that payoff.
Scott’s background is primarily in music videos and commercials, so it’s no surprise he lavishes great attention on major set pieces including a near-suicidal DUI and a missing-person search by civilian volunteers through a forest. But the connective emotional tissue that ought to ground these sequences and heighten their impact is absent.
Miller throws herself into a role that has lots of showy moments but can’t provide the organic grit that’s missing from the script. Moreover, she never fully convinces on a fundamental casting level: Deb is a drinker and smoker who has lived a difficult life, and while Miller’s hairstyles change a bit over the story’s span, she otherwise remains an ageless, glowing beauty. The actress gives an assertive, hard-working performance, but it never quite rings true.
The reliably expert Hendricks, her own natural elegance more effectively drabbed-down, is very good, as is “MadTV” veteran Sasso as her doughy but dependable spouse. Support turns are generally solid in limited roles. Understatedly revealing scenes like the one in which Deb briefly meets years later with Tyler, who has also suffered greatly from Bridget’s disappearance are fine, but sparse.
“American Woman” isn’t dull, but the narrative feels more over-stuffed than surprising, and the packaging busy rather than evocative. There’s no unifying directorial tone or stylistic tact to lend the film the symphonic grandeur it sometimes appears to be aiming for. The recent re-release of Barbara Loden’s 1971 “Wanda” — a very different film about another woman’s hard-knock life in working-class Pennsylvania — provides an interesting point of comparison. Its neorealist narrative is miniscule, almost static compared with the event-packed ambition of “American Woman.” But it has an absolute authenticity of character, place and behavior that Scott’s film lacks.