By Elias Savada.
Wanna watch a train wreck? Sienna Miller plays one in Jake Scott’s third feature. For the first half-hour of this blue-collar salute to misguided motherhood (and the remorse that follows in the wake of a parent’s “worst nightmare” scenario), Miller plays Deb Callahan, an angry, immature 31-year-old single mother and grandmother who can’t seem to find peace of mind as often as her oglers look at her as a piece of ass – not that she wants them to look the other way. She treasures her attractiveness, even if it’s gift wrapped as white trash. Most of the men in her life are hemorrhoids anyway – pains in the butt, while the father of Deb’s temperamental teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), is a slacker who has no interest in raising a child with her. Deb has her own agenda, too, and would rather not dote that much on her toddler grandson Jesse. She’s busy chain smoking, drinking box wine, and maintaining her status as a failed housebreaker with someone else’s husband in her rural Pennsylvania community. About the best Deb, a supermarket clerk, can do is gift a dildo to a female co-worker about to be married.
Scott, son of Sir Ridley, cut his directorial chops 20 years ago with Plunkett & Macleane, a lame ode to 18th-century highwaymen where he overlooked any character development in deference to overripened stylistic flourishes. A decade passed before his second feature, Welcome to the Rileys (2010), another box office failure, was slightly better received by the critics, who generally applauded the performances by James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart, and a story that follows similar inspirational moments found in Scott’s latest effort. American Woman is Scott’s best work (as it is Miller’s), but I’m not sure that’s good enough for it to find an audience in the art house circuit it is destined to briefly visit before settling into a streaming afterlife. I’m not sure where Scott’s allegiances are, but he’s won more acclaim as a music video and commercials director, including several Super Bowl ads for Budweiser. He can dabble with his features every few years, but shouldn’t quit his day job.
Miller, perhaps best known for her appearance in 2014’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper, playing the wife of its eponymous hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), is probably the best looking GMILF who has ever graced the silver screen. With her hair and makeup artists doing their jobs, it’s hard during the film’s opening act to spot the beauty through the tussled curls, drab wardrobe, and potty mouth antics of the film’s central character.
Deb seemingly has been on the road to bad decisions all her life, while her older, well-centered sister Kath (Christina Hendricks), who lives with her devoted husband Terry (Will Sasso) across the street with their family. Deb is the neighborhood’s low class entertainment, and the many family inquisitions all point toward the many horrid choices made about men in her life. The family gatherings amount to one shouting match after another.
As for Bridget, she disappears early in the film, adding a brief search subplot for her and the unanswered questions that haunt her vanishing. The film skips ahead several years, where Deb’s live-in catastrophes parade by and generally ignore the need-to-be nurtured 7-year-old Jesse in the room.
Brad Ingelsby, a screenwriter with a small pedigree, provides a horrid mother scenario that offers the high and low points in Deb’s life, pushing Miller to look and act the part. Look for all the key ingredients particularly abusive partners and up-by-boot-strap segments. The parts are there, even if the flow is a somewhat contrived.
Halfway through the just-under-two-hour film, Deb has conquered her earlier demons and even ironed out the differences with her mom (Amy Madigan). She’s also, finally, found a solid, down-to earth guy (Aaron Paul) as her new steady.
The film is basically a string of ups and downs that allows for Miller to build up her resume, smoking a few more stress-induced cigarettes and drowning a few more glasses of white wine. Hopes and disappointments, then more hopes and disappointments. Stir in lots of melancholy, and dashes of somber courtesy of the score by Adam Wiltzie, carefully composed panning shots by John Mathieson, and unpainted ingenuity by production designer Happy Massee.
As the film jumps a few years further ahead at the ¾-mark, where Deb, Chris, and Jesse have become a contented family unit enjoying Philly Cheesesteaks and Rolling Rock beer, the script starts to glorify Deb as a champion at work in an assisted living center.
American Woman has an appreciative, simple grace, but as it glides toward its final curtain, the film just seems to wimper out.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).