He may not be the biggest name in the movie business, but Jake Scott has made plenty of films. They just happen to be music videos and shorts, so American Woman is only his third feature – unlike his more famous dad, Ridley, who’s made more than most of us have had hot dinners. Yet, judging from this, it’s a shame Jake hasn’t made more of them himself, because there’s definitely more than just a chip off the old block on show.
Not that this is a perfect film: it has its limitations, particularly when it comes to tone, shifting abruptly from one half of the film to the other. But it also has interesting characters, high calibre acting and strong visuals that add up to an extremely watchable film. At the centre is Debs (Sienna Miller). Some might label her “white trash” and, at the start of the film, she’s in her mid-30s, has a teenage daughter and a reputation for being a good time girl. She’s having an affair with a married man, under the disapproving nose of her sister across the road, and her daughter has a toddler to look after. Then, one day after a night out, the girl doesn’t come home and has vanished without a trace. A police investigation doesn’t come up with anything and Debs has to adjust to her new life, that of looking after her grandson. A new live-in boyfriend turns out to be a disaster, so improving herself and her career prospects become her number one focus. But all the time her unresolved grief for her missing daughter still casts a dark shadow.
Teenage disappearances tragically make the news just about every day, but most of them fade into obscurity all too quickly, with little or no thought given to what happened and its effect on those left behind. Here we get something of an idea, with Debs reluctantly taking on the role of guardian to her grandson – not that she doesn’t love him, but she wants a life of her own, instead of becoming a mother for the second time. Her efforts to get her life back on to some kind of even keel are constantly sabotaged by the void left by her daughter and not knowing what happened.
It’s a low key film, but one that offers its cast some satisfyingly meaty roles to get their teeth into. They don’t disappoint. Sienna Miller has never been better as Debs – fiery, feisty, a downright handful at times, but with a determination to survive that simply can’t be squashed. She’s nearly matched by Christina Hendricks, stripped of make up to the extent that you do a double take when you first see her on screen, as her sister Katherine. She’s the more conventional of the two and they’re utterly convincing together, sparring one moment, hugging the next and always, but always being there for each other when the chips are down. In truth, it’s usually a case of Katherine being there for Debs, backed up by her hulk of a husband Terry, a very nicely judged supporting turn from Will Sasso. Appearances are deceptive as far as he’s concerned: that apparently lazy lug turns out to have more about him than meets the eye, both in terms of guts and emotional intelligence.
Scott has clearly inherited his dad’s talent for a telling image and there are moments when he eschews dialogue in favour of just letting the picture tell the story – a face reflected in a pane of glass, a room stripped back to its four walls, a forlorn piece of ground, a momentary close up. They all say more than pages of dialogue ever could and work beautifully, sometimes with music and sometimes without. It is very much a film of two halves, however, with the bulk of the energy in the first hour: the second is quieter, more sombre and doesn’t have quite the same spark, but it does have some poignancy and tenderness to replace it.
In case you’re wondering, no, that 70s rock anthem from Guess Who doesn’t feature in the film at all. Not that it won’t be going round in your head afterwards. That’s unavoidable. As is Miller’s class. She should be an award contender for this one. But, unless the studios get behind the film in a big way, this is a performance that will sadly slip under the radar. It deserves more and better.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
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Drama | UK, 11 October (2019) | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Jake Scott | Sienna Miller, Aaron Paul, Christina Hendricks, Will Sasso, Amy Madigan.