Be cautious about getting up to grab popcorn or use the bathroom if you’re seeing American Woman in theaters. Tthere’s a decent chance that when you return to your seat, you’ll think you came back to the wrong movie. The film jumps through time intentionally, but the tone also jumps around over the course of its two hour running time, with a lack of consistency that can be jarring and ultimately frustrating.
The goal of letting the story span several years is to show the progression and development of Deb (Sienna Miller), the movie’s central character. Early in the film, Deb’s teenage daughter Bridget disappears, leaving Deb to raise her infant grandson. The film traces the course of Deb’s life in the years that follow – relationships that develop, interactions with family, the ways her work life changes – seemingly positing that despite one dramatic and devastating episode, Deb grows and matures in a fairly normal way for an American woman.
The problem is that this story is both written and directed by men (Brad Ingelsby and Jake Scott, respectively), so too often, Deb’s story feels less like that of an actual woman and more like what two guys who work in movies think a working class woman’s life is like. We pop in and out of Deb’s life, and every time we see her again, she’s inexplicably grown, progressed, improved. Although she has flaws, there are fewer with every year that passes, and aside from some smoking, we never see her backtrack; her road to maturity is bumpy but unusually straight.
In order to manufacture Deb’s evolution along that linear trajectory, Ingelsby and Scott seemed to believe they needed Deb to start out as a full-blown train wreck, and so in the early scenes of the movie, she’s essentially that. As American Woman opens, Deb comes across as a parody of woman who became a grandmother at 33: she’s borrowing her 17-year-old daughter’s clothes to meet up with the married man she’s sleeping with, she gives her sister a hard time about staying faithful in her marriage, and she wears crop tops while searching for her missing daughter. In setting the bar for Deb so low and the stakes for the story so high, Ingelsby and Scott also set a tone for the film that’s off kilter and doesn’t line up with the later narrative direction.
Although the shifts in the story are distracting and sometimes confusing, the movie on the whole is more relatable as it settles out in its second half. As the urgency fades, viewers have more space to appreciate American Woman’s greatest asset: the actors. Miller’s performance is strong enough that she’s able to create some cohesion for the character of Deb by allowing flashes of her younger self to show through even as she matures. Christina Hendricks is excellent as Katherine, Deb’s older sister and the anchor of both Deb’s life and the film. The subtle shift of the relationship between the two sisters is the greatest payoff of the story’s extended timeline. Amy Madigan is also very good as Deb and Kath’s mother, Peggy. Madigan’s portrayal of the mostly steady matriarch gives way just often enough to show a flair for the dramatic, allowing audiences to see pieces of Peggy in both Kath and Deb.
American Woman does end with a kind of closure that I suppose is meant to be satisfying, but the new revelations bring viewers back to the drama of the beginning of the film. If there had been a focus on Bridget’s disappearance throughout, that development would have made sense. But the film has moved so far away from the initial drama that by pulling the audience back into that narrative, the filmmakers frustratingly twist away again from the questions and unresolved conflict that had become the story’s focus. A story with a clear ending isn’t the same as a complete story, and even the good work of the actors isn’t enough to keep American Womanfrom being too slippery for meaningful engagement.